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West Bank

Abbas: al-Qaeda in Palestinian Territories

By Steve Schippert | March 3, 2006

As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warns that there is an al-Qaeda presence in the Palestinian Territories, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has vowed to stop Palestinian terrorist attacks with an ‘iron fist’. Said Olmert, "There are no longer any restrictions on the security establishment regarding counterterrorism actions anywhere."

While the New York Times article suggests that this ‘iron fist’ is a political reaction to shrinking enthusiasm in Israel for Olmert’s stewardship of the Kadima Party, created by Ariel Sharon, the political intent of Olmert’s public statements should not be confused with the concrete purpose of the counterterrorism actions themselves. To this end, Olmert is certainly attempting to reassure the Israeli electorate that he will be a staunch defender of Israel with such terms as ‘iron fist’. But the actual series of operations this entails would exist regardless of such public, political displays, whether they would have hypothetically been at the hand of an Ariel Sharon, a Benyamin Netanyahu or from an Ehud Olmert. Solid Israeli operations to thwart attacks on Israeli civilians in the immediate will always be first priority, regardless of leadership or long-term strategy differences. Consider Olmert’s words, "Not a few times terrorists who were about to fire rockets were liquidated before they could fire them and it was based on my orders, sometimes my personal orders." This is simply no different from previous Israeli leaders, be they Labour, Lahoud or otherwise.

Mahmoud Abbas stated, "We have indications about the presence of al-Qa'eda in Gaza and the West Bank. This is intelligence information. […] We have unconfirmed reports that Al Qaeda, which sent members to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, may also send its members to us for purposes of sabotage." This has been long suspected since the unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza. Courtesy of Evan Kohlmann, the existence of al-Qaeda's Palestine Frontier Jihad Brigades is proven by their own communiqué from 15AUG05. Further, the AP reports that Jordan's King Abdullah also has said al-Qaida has set up terror cells inside Israel itself. The presence of al-Qaeda in the Palestinian Territories is not a new development, though no less troubling regardless of the timing. Abbas’ public statements are put forth for international political considerations even more so than Olmert’s are for internal political considerations. This, however, is not how the situation is presented by some.

While Hamas' Ambassador Bakir Abdel-Munem said that "Hamas may revise its stance in the interests of the entire Palestinian people," in reference to the potential recognition of the State of Israel, Abbas was laying down the Fatah strategy for undermining Hamas’ governance over Palestinians. "We are all required to continue activating and strengthening the Palestinian Liberation Organization's role as the sole legitimate representative of our people."

With these words, Abbas laid out a new strategy: the PLO would be the key to destabilizing Hamas' rule and would help restore Fatah's leadership. It is remarkable that Abbas gave such a speech. After the Oslo Accords, the Fatah leadership in Ramallah sought to weaken the PLO - a Fatah-dominated umbrella group, but that also includes most major Palestinian factions. This strategy was adopted because, at the time, the PLO represented the old guard - those who had decided to remain in Tunis, thereby signaling their opposition to Oslo and their refusal to recognize the PA as representative of the Palestinian people.

Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades fired their weapons near the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah, indicative of the nature of the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas. At some point, the AK-47’s will likely not be pointed toward the blue sky, especially considering Abbas’ openly stated desire to undermine Hamas.

But the struggle between the Palestinian factions has not stopped their united struggle with Israel. One of the senior West Bank commanders of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Abu Nasser, has said that the Third Intifada is coming, and will be bloodier than either of the previous intifadas. As part of Olmert’s professed Iron Fist, Israeli operations near the Nablus refugee camp of Balata continue.

Meanwhile, as the Bush Administration inexplicably has already begun to ease its stance against Hamas, the American Congress remains in relentless opposition to any moderation towards the elected terrorist organization and the government which it heads.

It is acknowledged that complexities abound exist regarding the path to Middle East transformation, as the current debate regarding the participation of a UAE-owned firm in US port operations exhibits. However, these complexities should not be allowed to cloud the clarity of basic principle, exhibited so undeniably understandable when President Bush declared to the nations of the world, “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Well, Mr. President? Quite simply, Hamas are the terrorists, regardless of their fairly and freely elected station. To cloud this distinction is to embark on a path guided in critical error.