PALESTINE: One year of the al Aqsa intifada

Issue 

BY SALEH AL MASRI

0nly by the latter years of the first intifada (uprising), which erupted at the end of 1987 did the buds of Palestinian military activity appear. However, this is in no way comparable with the developments witnessed in the "Aqsa intifada", be this in respect to the quantitative aspects of armed activity or in terms of the variety of methods used in these activities.

With this said, there is likewise no comparison in terms of the extensive human and material losses incurred by both sides due to this military development.

Since the first month of its eruption on September 28, 2000, the Aqsa intifada showed a resurgence of the same popular methods as the first intifada. However, things gradually began moving towards the use of available individual weapons while at the same time all forms of wide popular participation began to retreat.

[Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's victory in the elections was based on a popular Israeli mandate to use brute force to extinguish the intifada. And, indeed, Sharon launched a full-scale war on the Palestinians, intensifying the use of live ammunition, tank shells, helicopter missiles and assassinations etc. The intifada was faced with a challenge which it could not turn back from.

It seems that there is no realistic possibility to retreat from continuing in the armed nature of the intifada and restore the social and popular nature of the intifada when considering the dangerous developments in the military policies of the Israeli government. At the strategic level, Sharon's government believes that there is a military solution to extinguish the intifada.

Until now, there has been no indication of a retreat in Israel's plan to destroy the Palestinian Authority (PA) and to score a military and decisive victory over the intifada. On the political level, this government is continuing to follow a purely military policy, even in dealing with peaceful demonstrations and non-violent and unarmed forms of Palestinian protest.

On the operational level, there have been dangerous Israeli developments, including the granting of relaxed authorisation to field officers, even location officers and not the chief of staff or the district or regional commander — the freedom to direct military action against what this bottom-rung level believes to be a security threat from the Palestinians. The Israeli rules of engagement in the Occupied Territories no longer include firing warning shots and there are no longer instructions to arrest a suspect. The army quite simply shoots to kill.

For these reasons, there is no realistic possibility to return to the popular nature of the first intifada or even the possibility to merge or interchange between these two forms.

Within this strategic framework, time is of crucial importance for Israel. The longer the intifada continues, the harder it will be for Israel to put a stop to it without surrendering to Arafat's demand due to the heightened resolve this will bring about among the Palestinian masses and the increased casualty figures among Israelis. That is why there is an increased demand among upper levels of the Israeli political and military establishment that the goal of the government's policy should aim at bringing about a "swift end to the acts of violence".

On the other hand, it is difficult to detect from the Palestinian side a clear role for the militarisation of the intifada in the realisation of its overall strategic objectives. We can, however, say that there are two streams of military activity which operate upon the premise of continuation of the intifada by armed means.

The first is represented in the Fatah movement, particularly the Tanzim, and the armed groups that branch off it — with all their various names (Brigades of the Martyrs of Al Aqsa, the Return Brigades, the Brigades of the Martyr Hussein Ubeiyat etc.) — which bear the majority of the daily military actions of the intifada. This organisation, given its political background and its relationship with the PA, has an understanding of the military aspect of the intifada within a wider strategic framework, namely, confining it within the framework of a bargaining tactic against the Israeli occupation.

The Fatah stream is closer to "the Vietnamisation" of the intifada, which seeks to exhaust the occupation and make it pay an increasingly higher price. At the same time, it juggles its alternatives of political and negotiating manoeuvres and the option of continuing with armed resistance.

The second stream of military activity is represented by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which both seek to transform the armed nature of the intifada into a strategy in itself. This is at least what can be concluded from the banners which they raise: "[Armed] Resistance is our people's only option." (Al Moqawama heya khayar sha'bina al wahid). This stream believes in conducting moqawama both as an act of confronting the enemy (Israel and its occupation) and fighting against negotiations for a political settlement.

Targets and tactics

The great majority of military operations of the current intifada are focused on two targets: Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Jewish settlements and settlers. The Islamic opposition groups, however, have generally focused their efforts on martyrdom operations — explosive devices and booby-trapped cars inside the Green Line and in Israeli gathering places.

Additionally, beginning last March, Israel announced that Palestinians were launching mortar rockets (hown) at Israeli settlements and a few cities inside the Green Line (first in Gaza and later, two cases in the West Bank town of Beit Jala). Israel held the PA, Fatah and Hamas responsible for these attacks.

The armed transformation of the Intifada has relied upon the following methods and tactics:

  • Shooting from light weapons and machine guns. This tactic branched off as follows: shooting at military posts and settlements, shooting from ambushes (at moving targets both military and settler) and sniper fire and sharp-shooting.

  • Attacks by throwing hand grenades.

  • Attacks by firing armour-piercing shells. Israeli security circles speak of limited use of armour-piercing shells, which are attached to the mouth of machine guns. Usually, Israel mentions the use of Energa shells and not B-7 or RBJs, which Israeli sources claim are in the Palestinians' possession, even though there have never been any attacks in which they were used.

  • Explosive devices and amour piercing mines. In preparing explosive devices Palestinian groups have depended on materials extracted from remnants of old Israeli mines, as well as on locally made materials. Over time, there has been a qualitative improvement in the manufacturing and use of explosive devices, especially those detonated by remote-controlled and timer devices.

Israeli sources mentioned two outstanding developments in this regard: the first is related to the detonation of the bomb by remote control using a cellular phone and the second is by using old artillery shells as explosive devices. Explosive devices however have only been used in a limited manner in complex military operations. Additionally, old or locally made mines have been used against armoured personnel carriers and armoured vehicle.

  • Suicide operations and booby-trapped cars. Generally speaking, operations of this kind are executed across the Green Line in Israel, though there are a limited number of suicide operations that were carried out against Israeli checkpoints or military barricades within the Occupied Territories.

According to Israeli data (which we must treat cautiously), in the first six months of the intifada, there were 24 operations or attempts at these kinds of operations inside the Green Line. This number is distributed between martyrdom operations, booby-trapped cars and planting explosive devices.

Since 1993, the Islamic opposition organisations have sent 72 suicide bombers inside Israel, of which 53 succeeded in their operations while the rest failed to carry them out.

  • Mortar shelling. The militarisation of the intifada took a qualitative turn when the new method of using mortar shells was introduced, as a result of the following factors:

1. The accelerating increase in Palestinian human and material losses, where the effect upon the enemy of the available individual weapons had a limited effect.

2. Precautionary measures taken by the Israeli occupation army to further distance the shooting range of individual weapons and minimise the possibility of infiltration to carry out attacks on military outposts and settlements. This was done by exposing the land surrounding these locations, which are, by their topographical nature, flatlands (levelling orchards, uprooting trees, demolishing surrounding buildings and homes, etc.) especially in the Gaza Strip where the great majority of mortars have been fired.

Israeli security sources have admitted that shells and mortar rockets are being manufactured locally and under the supervision of the PA. These sources accused one of the departments belonging to the Palestinian National Security known as the "Scientific Committee" (which in Lebanon was responsible for military manufacturing) that it is behind the manufacturing of mortar rockets and their shells. Based on these accusations, Israeli helicopters shelled and destroyed the headquarters of the "Scientific Committee" in Gaza and in the Jenin district in the West Bank.

Israel also claims that the PA supervises and funds the manufacturing of these mortars in special workshops. Israeli planes destroyed one of these workshops in the early morning hours of May 21, in northern Gaza with helicopter-launched rockets. So far Palestinians have fired 81mm and 82mm mortars, and then later advanced with the usage of the 120mm mortars which have a farther range.

Assessment

It may be premature to conduct an in-depth assessment of the military turn taken by the Palestinian intifada. Nonetheless, the matter requires that some comments in this regard be made.

Firstly, the overall Palestinian situation was not prepared, from a number of aspects, for this armed transformation.

The main force, which carried the burden of this armed transformation, was youth groups who to a great extent, lacked experience in military and combat. This was reflected in the level of military, organisational and leadership performance. However, with time, there was a tangible improvement. The Fatah Tanzim, and especially those members who were associated with groups which participated in armed activity during the first intifada (Fahd el Aswad, Suqoor), have exerted major efforts side by side with groups from other national and Islamic Palestinian factions.

The major part of the Palestinian military force — namely, the PA military — has not taken part in military action, except on an individual and very limited basis. These are expertise units which have prior combat experiences in addition to the training they acquired under the umbrella of the PA whether at the local level or in security or military training camps in Arab or foreign countries.

Therefore, we can say that a large and important part of the intifada's energy has remained in reserve.

The Sharon government is targeting members, posts and headquarters of these security apparatuses perhaps aiming to destroy them or to provoke them into expediting their involvement in armed confrontations. This would transform the intifada into an open "state of war", which in the end world justify his destroying and overthrowing the Authority and its apparatuses and also could extinguish or abort the Intifada.

Despite the emergence of innovative methods, the armed transformation of the intifada is in need of more creative solutions at the leadership and operational coordination level. It also must seek to merge between the forms and methods of innovative popular resistance — which a wide sector of unarmed citizens would join — and the armed operations of the intifada.

The armed transformation is also in need of parallel political rhetoric that would more efficiently affect the internal Israeli front.

The intifada is in need of a reevaluation of its conditions with every new stage. In this regard, perhaps it would be beneficial to point to certain dangers a distinctly military quality to the intifada could bring about:

  • Contradictions between differing military concepts and their respective political goals;

  • the risk of specifying maximum goals that may be difficult to fully achieve;

  • the danger of militarisation developing into a life of its own that separates itself from the daily reality of Palestinians;

  • neglecting to upgrade technical and professional military tactics;

  • digressing towards secondary goals or internal strife;

  • excessive use of military action for factional purposes; and

  • misconduct towards citizens or any unjustified resort to subjecting their properties or sources of income to danger.

[From Between the Lines, September 2001. To subscribe to Between the Lines write to PO Box 681, Jerusalem, Israel or email <btl@palnet.com>.]

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