Sunday, March 20, 2005

Word on the Streets

"The peace process is for the media. It’s not real. The people are waiting for our decision, not Abu Mazen’s."

In "Appointment with Fear", Israeli journalist Yigal Sarna in today’s FT magazine, keeps it real as Ali G might say, if he lived long enough in this West Bank canton.

"Follow me", the boy says shyly. He leads us through alleys where the houses are so close together that the second storeys touch one another. In the doorways of small shops, idle men watch us without a word. At the edge of the camp, my guide phones our liaison, who says: “A child will come to take you.” Ten minutes later another boy pops up beside us. We follow him through the lanes of Balata, the most violent Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank. He stops at a green iron door. We climb four steps into a sooty apartment that doubles as a bakery. Next to the bread oven we are halted by two boys, like two miniature sentries.

The boys are 15 or 16 years old, in the twilight zone between a childhood of plastic pistols and the armed manhood of live weapons and explosives. They move us from room to room, to where their brother Jum’a is sleeping. He wakes, and greets us.

Jum’a, who is a few years older, is our contact: he is an al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militant, a soldier in the war against Israel. And I am an Israeli journalist. This is a man who would, were I in a Jerusalem street, gladly see me dead. But we are meeting during a time of ceasefire, of truce, of hope - and hostilities are, for the moment, on hold.

In the camp, boys no older than our escort might be recruited by the Brigades to smuggle explosives into Israel. Or they might be recruited by Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, to track the Brigades for them. It depends on who gets their hands on them first. “Just yesterday we caught a boy, a jassus,” Jum’a says to me as he rises from his bed on the floor. Jassus is a harsh word. It means “spy”, an occupation that invites the death penalty.

”The boy was told to keep watch on our two commanders, Sanagra and Saltah,” says Jum’a. “But he was also reporting to Shin Bet; he was supposed to plant a bomb to kill them.” Snooker, the boy who was caught, was sleeping rough after running away from a father who beat him; Jum’a’s commander took pity on him and let him sleep in his own home. Shin Bet’s trap worked well at first - but then the boy was exposed. When the Brigades catch a collaborator, they interrogate him and then, usually, they kill him. In this case, they didn’t: they took pity. “He was working for the Israelis for only three weeks. He didn’t do any harm. We interrogated him and he broke. Just a kid, not well-trained.” The room is filling up with Jum’a’s comrades from the Brigades, and they laugh.

The Brigades make videos of the interrogation and execution of collaborators: two, who were caught in mid-January, were interrogated for several days with the help of burning cigarettes, the red-hot element of an electric heater and beatings. Once the collaborators had admitted everything, they were killed near the mosque, after evening prayers, in full view of the whole community. “We filmed everything,” the men tell me, as if to point out that they are sticklers for procedure.

Why have these men agreed to meet my photographer and me? Perhaps it is because of a burning desire that their fiery youth, doomed to end in violent death, will not be forgotten. Or perhaps it is because they feel that, during this time of talks between the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) and the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon - a period in which they are not supposed to shoot at or kill anyone - they are losing their value. They are evaporating.

Before I met these young men, I spoke with a man I knew from the Balata camp. “This new truce,” he told me, “is the Brigades’ disaster. The street wants peace, but the peace is drying up the Brigades, whose power comes from weapons. The source of donations is also drying up. They are flickering out with the fire.”

Now there are about 10 young fighters in the room. Jum’a, whose home this is; Nasser, the oldest; tall Muhammad; some silent young men who don’t introduce themselves. “What is going to happen to you?” I ask them. “The Israelis will kill us.” They don’t have any other plans. Even when they go upstairs to the open rooftop to pose for the photographer, they seem to be imagining their faces on martyrs’ posters on an alley wall. The camera only completes the work of the rifle.

Now the Brigades’ current commander, Ala Sanagra, joins us. Ahmed Saltah - already nominated as his successor if and when Sanagra dies - is not with him. This is a vital rule: the two men are never in the same place at the same time. Both are on the most-wanted list, having been involved, according to an Israeli military spokesman, in three killings in 2004 and other “extensive terror activity”.

Sanagra is good-looking in a strange way, with sharp, handsome features that stand out from the crowd. He speaks little and wears stylish, tight black clothing. “This is Brigades style,” he says. Most of the young men in the room are dressed in black. Their short hair is spiky with gel, sometimes covered with the small woollen hat worn by pilgrims to Mecca. Most are wearing dark leather jackets.

Sanagra, who is 27 and single - “I’m married to the Brigades” - was born in Balata and into the Occupation: he was 10 when the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, erupted. Like many other youngsters in the camp, he threw stones at soldiers and saw his father humiliated. There were nights when he awoke in terror as soldiers burst in to search the sleeping house. This seems to be a formative experience for many children in the camp. Their safest refuge is violated; in adulthood, the fear and impotence that this creates develops into a profound need for control, preferably using the power provided by weapons - the same weapons those childhood intruders carried.

Few of those who have gathered in the room to talk with me expect to die a natural death. Since the beginning of the second intifada, at the end of 2000, about 100 people have been killed in the Balata camp. According to the Brigades’ count, 79 of these “martyrs” were their people.

Most of the men here are heavy smokers, getting through a packet of Marlboros during the course of our conversation, crumpling the empty packet next to the ashtray. I count three rounds of coffee during the meeting. The room fills up with smoke. The atmosphere is a mixture of caffeine, nicotine and gunpowder.

The screened windows are slightly open and look out over a narrow passage between houses, but there is something suffocating and claustrophobic about sitting here. The room is a refuge, but also a potential trap. For a moment I imagine an Israeli force suddenly bursting in through the windows. My mind fills with an image of murderous chaos; the fighters, however, are having fun. They regale me with some of the folklore and humour of the Martyrs’ Brigades: how they forced a collaborator they had captured to phone his controller in Shin Bet, listened to the conversation, then interrupted it to yell at the Israeli intelligence captain, who quickly hung up. How six of them shot holes in the collaborator with their automatic weapons until he looked like a honeycomb. How people came to kick his corpse.

They like to tease their pursuers, even though they know that the Israelis are a hundred times stronger, that they will get them in the end. The game always ends in death, but at least playing wins you a temporary sense of power - a release from the Occupation, where from the moment you are born you have no control over anything, in which your every move is watched, your every move blocked. Control, even momentary control, is magical. For a brief while you instil fear in those who have made you afraid from the moment you were born. You rise from the dust of your trampled father.

”Ever since I was a child I’ve loved disturbances, demonstrations, stones,” says Jum’a. “I felt that this was my thing in life,” he says, holding a Kalashnikov he has brought out from its hiding place. The room is full of weapons. They have an animal presence, like the reek of a lion in a cave. These are guns that have fired and killed, and most of their owners are wanted men “with blood on their hands”, as Israel defines it: the killing of soldiers, the planning and implementation of terrorist attacks. Fear of these men casts a shadow in Israel that extends into the camp, where they have appointed themselves the guardians of morality. They will punish a wife-beater, a woman who strays, a thief who is caught. “They’ve acquired the reputation of very cruel fellows,” a camp-dweller told me. “Children who have no mercy.”

Ten years ago this group of young men were children, who sometimes threw stones at soldiers. But as they grew, they each became active in the Shabiba youth movement; they became a coherent group upon joining the Tanzim, the military wing of al-Fatah. Once the second intifada began, the group adopted the name “al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades” - thus commemorating the spark that caused the conflagration: Ariel Sharon’s September 2000 visit to Temple Mount in Jerusalem (the site of, among other holy places, al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock) and the killing of Palestinians in the riots that followed. Now the men of the Brigades are the least restrained of all the Tanzim’s fighters, sustaining a very high level of losses. The attrition rate is so high that it seems as though death itself is with us in the room.

”How many commanders were there before you?” I ask Sanagra. His hand caresses the ammunition clip of his weapon as he enumerates them in his mind.


He is the ninth: all the previous commanders have been killed or captured by their Israeli pursuers; only three were taken alive.

”A cat has only nine lives,” I say.

”I’m on the ninth,” Sanagra smiles when my guide translates.

The men show me a poster depicting all the commanders. In the centre is Yasser al-Badawi, the Brigades’ founder; around him are the others: the dead, who are buried in the camp cemetery, and the living, who are buried alive in prison.

Al-Badawi established the Brigades in the camps in January 2001. He was a native of Balata, unmarried and in his early thirties. For seven months he recruited youngsters, collected donations, located weapons and ordered attacks - until he was killed in his car, when a grenade belonging to the co-fighter sitting next to him blew up. The men are certain that the weapon had been booby-trapped, and was triggered by an Israeli drone that passed overhead - that the “accident” was a targeted killing.

How do you select a new leader?

”The Brigades are a pyramid. The top of the pyramid decides who is next, according to seniority and the successes that person has had.” They count up “successes” as a businessman counts up commercial initiatives: 23 dead from an attack in Tel Aviv; a female suicide bomber killing two policemen in Jerusalem; a bomb in a shopping mall; a youth who blew himself up in an outdoor market.

The third commander was called Mahmood al-Titi, who is admired to this day. He shot down an Israeli drone, carried out terrorist attacks and even killed an Israeli soldier from an elite unit. He was blown up by an Israeli tank shell while visiting the camp cemetery. His replacement was Amir Zukan, who held sway for a few months until he was captured and given seven life sentences. In the chaos that ensued, 20-year-old Muhammad al-Hatib was chosen as the new commander. Two months later he was wounded and captured. After his arrest, Hashem Abu Hamdan and Nader Abu Leil commanded the Brigades, together with Khalil Marshoud. On June 2 2004, combat helicopters killed Abu Hamdan and Abu Leil by firing missiles at their vehicle; Marshoud remained alone as the eighth commander.

In mid-June 2004, Marshoud had talks with Fatah about the possibility of a ceasefire with Israel. That evening, he took a taxi to the camp with two other young men. Marshoud was next to the driver; Muhammad al-Assi, now sitting with us in the baker’s apartment, was in the back seat. Al-Assi remembers that it was dark when they entered the camp.

”Four days later I woke up in a hospital without remembering a thing.” He shows me a scar on his neck, and another on his abdomen. “The helicopters fired two missiles.” One missed, but the second was a direct hit on Marshoud. “We took him out of the vehicle: without a face, without a belly and without one arm,” says another young fighter, who helped carry Marshoud’s body from the smashed car. Around his neck there now hangs a small photograph of the martyr, a handsome young man.

And so Ala Sanagra was appointed the ninth commander, with Ahmed Saltah as his nominated successor. In order to demonstrate the danger that does not disappear for a moment, Sanagra shows me his mobile phone. “Captain Munir of Shin Bet knows my number,” he says. “He phoned me this week and said: ‘Soon I am going to slaughter you with a knife. You are a dead man.’” He laughs, briefly.

Such intimacy between pursuer and the pursued is not unusual: the Israelis possess photographs and details of every wanted man; the Palestinians know many of their hunters. Meanwhile, all about them, the territory is “planted” with collaborators.

”Don’t believe anyone here. The people in the camp love us,” Nasser, the group’s oldest member, tells me, “but it is a love without trust. That’s our law.”

What will happen next?

”This is just a temporary lull. Not a hudna,” says Sanagra, using the word for a truce. “For the moment, all sides have locked the safety catch on their weapons. We and the Israelis. But if they execute someone, we will take strong vengeance.” He is holding an M-16 engraved with a cedar tree - the symbol of Lebanon, where the rifle came from. As we talk, the fighters pass their weapons - a silvery pistol, an M-16 with a telescopic sight, a short Kalashnikov - hand to hand, like pets, as though it were hard for them to live without their metallic closeness, without the control and the security that they afford.

And the peace process?

”It’s good only for the media. It’s not real. We don’t want a complicated agreement like Oslo, but a simple agreement: for Israel to get out of the whole West Bank and to release all the prisoners. Then there will be peace. The people are waiting for our decision. Not Abu Mazen’s. We get messages from Abu Mazen all the time, but we aren’t a part of the new mood. He does not represent us, even though we are together with him in the Fatah. We haven’t given our agreement to the current process. But we want peace.” He says this like a man longing for a good sleep, after years of keeping his eyes wide open.

Will you fight Palestinian soldiers if they come here to force through an agreement?

”We will never shoot at our own soldiers,” says Sanagra.

”We need peace even more than you Israelis do,” says the baker and the owner of the house, Jum’a’s father. His greatest fear is that the Israeli army will, in pursuit of his son, blow up his home and that he, his wife and their other six children will be left without a roof over their heads. Jum’a’s mother remains outside the room, but I hear her angry mutterings against the men. “Why have they all come here?” She also scolds us, two Israelis who have come into her home. But it is the men who decide who enters. And when the father speaks, his son keeps quiet: filial respect is stronger than any politics. Jum’a’s father belongs to the generation that worked in Israel and misses the place. He remembers a boss who was “sweet as sugar”. To this the son says nothing; his generation is cut off from that Israel.

When we leave, some of the Brigades’ fighters accompany us the short distance to the military roadblock where our taxi waits for us. The people of the camp watch the armed men in silence. Only children gather around them. Forty-five minutes later, I am at home in Tel Aviv.

A week later, I return to the same room. Sanagra does not appear. He has vanished.

A few young men come in, surrounding a tall, thin figure. He is the tenth: Ahmed Saltah, Sanagra’s partner in the leadership. There is a heavy Hungarian pistol stuck in his belt, but the room is empty of sub-machine-guns.

Where have all the weapons gone?

”This week we lost the weapons that you saw,” says Saltah.

He himself was saved by a miracle. On the previous Tuesday evening, Saltah was sitting with three colleagues in an abandoned house in the village of Kalil. According to the Israeli Defence Force’s version of events, the four men were preparing to mount a terrorist attack. There were two others with them, not from the Brigades: the mayor of Nablus’s bodyguard and a Palestinian policeman. One looked out of the window and saw that the house was surrounded by the Israeli army.

The policeman and the bodyguard fired through the windows, creating cover for Saltah to slip out the back. He says the two men were killed in the house; the army says they were shot outside, close to the fence surrounding a nearby Jewish settlement, while carrying an explosive charge with a cellular detonator.

”They sacrificed their lives for me,” Saltah tells me, as one of Jum’a’s younger brothers looks on admiringly. It is the day after the dead men’s funeral, and Saltah’s right leg is jittery with tension. Had the Israelis killed him that night, his men would have taken revenge. Had he succeeded in any terrorist attack, Israel would have taken revenge. Possibly the fire would have reignited and the cards been reshuffled. Everything is so fragile in this peace.

A thick furrow is etched between his soft, boyish eyes. He does not smile much. Before October 2000, he had managed to spend two months studying economics at Najah University. Now his future is a helicopter missile or a bullet.

”I could be killed at any moment. But as long as there is a Palestinian woman who gives birth to a son, there will be a new leader to replace me. This is a chain.” He knows all the details of the deaths of his predecessors, and of the deaths of those they killed; he knows this better than anything. And a few years from now, if nothing changes, that admiring younger brother will be sitting under the commanders’ faded photographs, holding his automatic weapon, and talking to another journalist.