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The Palestinian group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade evolved in recent years from a Fatah linked coalition of militias seeking an end to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip into a more radical organization. Emerging around the time of what Palestinians call the “Second Intifada” in 2000, the brigade at first targeted Israeli settlers and military outposts. But its decision to join Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and target civilians in Israeli cities in 2002 prompted the U.S. State Department to list the brigade as a terrorist organization and led Washington to abandon efforts to deal with the Palestinian president, the late Yasir Arafat.
What is the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade?
The brigade is a network of West Bank militias affiliated with former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s Fatah faction and has been one of the driving forces behind the what Palestinians call the “Second” or “Al-Aqsa Intifada” (uprising). While the group initially vowed to target only Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in early 2002 it joined Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in a spree of terrorist attacks against civilians in Israeli cities. In March 2002, after a deadly al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade suicide bombing in Jerusalem, the State Department added the group to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, and ceased regarding Arafat as a viable partner in peace negotiations.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade consists of localized, autonomous units that mostly act independently of each other, united under a common alliance to Fatah, according to the State Department. Due to its decentralized power structure, U.S. intelligence officials often have difficulty identifying leaders of the organization.
In 2004 the brigade engaged in a ceasefire with Israel but resumed attacks when Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, according to the State Department. The 2006 Country Report says that the brigade continues intra-Palestinian violence and adds to the “overall chaotic security environment.” The brigade operates primarily in the West Bank but have also carried out attacks in the Gaza strip and Israel.
What does the name al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade mean?
The group’s name refers to the al-Aqsa Mosque—located atop the contested Jerusalem holy site known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount. Arabs refer to the uprising, which began in September 2000 after a controversial walk atop that holy site by Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon, as the al-Aqsa intifada. Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, whose name is Arabic for “the farthest place.” The individual militias that make up the group are often named after recently killed Palestinian militants.
What is the brigade’s relationship with the Palestinian government?
Whether Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has a direct relationship with the leadership of Fatah is debated. Although the brigade formed as an armed offshoot of Fatah, experts say that it seems unlikely that the brigade operate at the behest of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. Direct orders from the head of Fatah to the brigade would have been more probable under Yasir Arafat than under Abbas.
In October 2005, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia announced a plan to begin disarming the brigade by setting up training camps and incorporating its members into the Palestinian security forces. Al-Aqsa spokesmen in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip said they were confident the group would go along with the new plan, but Israeli officials are skeptical that the effort to disarm the group will actually be successful. In July 2007, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority reached an agreement that included amnesty for 178 brigade members on the condition that they end all anti-Israeli attacks and join forces in the battle against Hamas in Gaza. Not all of the released members complied. Despite some progress on the deal, the Palestinian Authority requested that additional prisoners be released from Israeli prisons, but the Israeli government has been reluctant to comply.
Is this an Islamist movement?
No. The brigade began in 2000 as an offshoot of Fatah, the secular Palestinian nationalist movement led by Arafat. Fatah is the largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization. (When Israel and the PLO signed a peace deal in 1993, Arafat renounced terrorism and founded a new, Palestinian-led administration in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.) The al-Aqsa Marytrs Brigade commits the same sort of suicide bombings widely associated with such Muslim fundamentalist groups as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but the group’s ideology is rooted in Palestinian nationalism, not political Islam.
Secular brigade members often clash with members of Hamas in Gaza. Although the brigade agreed to a unilateral ceasefire in 2004, it resumed attacks on Hamas after Hamas won in the 2006 parliamentary elections. The fighting began as sporadic street conflicts with assassinations of leaders on both sides but escalated to a civil war after power-sharing agreements failed. As a result of the fighting the Palestinian territory was splintered into two areas – a Hamas-controlled Gaza and Fatah-controlled West Bank. Since the territorial split, the brigade cells that are located in the West Bank are only nominally affiliated with the cells that are in Gaza. They do not seem to coordinate on targets or plans.
What sort of attacks does the brigade launch?
Shootings were the primary form of attack until the brigade began targeting civilians in 2002, then suicide bombings became the primary form of violence, according to the State Department. The brigade hopes to drive Israel out of the West Bank by force. The group began by targeting Israeli roadblocks and settlers in the West Bank, but since shifting its tactics in early 2002, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has claimed responsibility for some of the conflict’s most significant attacks, including:
- In January 2008 the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade joined with Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to shoot rockets into Israel from Gaza. Israel retaliated by blockading the Gaza strip;
- A January 2007 suicide bombing in Eilat that killed three people. The attack was the first suicide bombing in Israel in nine months and both al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Palestinian Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for it;
- In June 2006 members of the brigade kidnapped an American college student after mistaking him for an Israeli. Initially they said he would be killed unless Israel released all of its Palestinian prisoners but released him the same day upon discovering his nationality;
- In January 2006, the European Union mission in Gaza was overtaken for a half hour by masked gunmen who demanded that Denmark and Norway apologize for publishing satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. There were no shots fired or injuries;
- An October 2005 suicide attack at the Gush Etzion junction that killed three Israelis and wounded three others;
- A March 2004 suicide bombing at a checkpoint at the Port of Ashdod that killed ten people. Hamas also claimed responsibility for the attack;
- A January 2004 attack on a bus in Rehavia, Jerusalem that killed 11 people;
- A pair of January 2003 suicide bombings in downtown Tel Aviv that killed 23 people and injured about 100 more, one of the bloodiest attacks of the current Palestinian uprising;
- A November 2002 shooting spree at a kibbutz in northern Israel that killed five Israelis, including two children, and wounded seven more;
- An April 2002 suicide bombing at a marketplace in Jerusalem that killed six people and injured 104 more;
- A March 2002 suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed three Israelis, prompting Israel to call off ceasefire talks with Arafat’s Palestinian Authority;
- Another March 2002 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem café that killed 11 Israelis and wounded more than 50;
- A March 2002 sniper attack on an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank in which the gunman methodically killed 10 Israelis, including seven Israeli soldiers, before escaping;
- A January 2002 suicide attack in Jerusalem by a female terrorist that killed an elderly man and wounded about 40 other people.
When did the group begin to target civilians inside Israel?
Experts say the shift began in early 2002, when the Palestinian death toll in the current uprising was nearing 1,000 and the popularity of Arafat’s secular Fatah faction was waning in comparison to the Islamist militants of Hamas. A 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center (PDF) says that many Palestinians support suicide bombings as an effective means of attack.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade attacks became more deadly after January 2002, when the group’s West Bank leader, Raed Karmi, was killed in an explosion widely believed in the region to have been a “targeted killing” by Israeli forces.