- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

NABLUS, West Bank — Israel yesterday said it will continue pulling back from Palestinian areas despite the killing of a Bulgarian construction worker in an attack that bore out a militant leader’s pledge to ignore a three-month cease-fire.

“As long as there are [Israeli] soldiers in front of my house and shooting at me, I cannot stop resisting them,” said a 31-year-old leader from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in this West Bank city.

Speaking two days before the Sunday announcement of the suspension of attacks on Israelis, he called the cease-fire “a waste of time.”

An Al Aqsa cell in Jenin, also on the West Bank, took responsibility for the shooting ambush yesterday of construction worker Christo Radkov, 46, who had lived in a settlement nearby. Another shooting occurred near a second town, Qalqilya, though no one was injured.

Despite the attacks, Israeli and Palestinian generals agreed that Israeli forces would withdraw from the West Bank city of Bethlehem tomorrow. That move and an Israeli pullback in the Gaza Strip yesterday are confidence-building measures called for under the U.S.-backed “road map” to peace in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is set to meet today with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, to discuss progress made in the peace initiative, Mr. Abbas’ office said.

The pullback in Gaza recalled scenes from the mid-1990s when Israel first handed over areas of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians. Palestinian and Israeli officers shook hands and embraced as checkpoints were dismantled and main streets were opened to Palestinian motorists for the first time in weeks.

The withdrawal from Palestinian cities was one of several conditions for the cease-fire declared by the main factions fighting Israel — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and elements of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party.

The attacks underscored the difficulty of enforcing the truce when Palestinian regional officers in the West Bank and Gaza — isolated from one another by Israeli military closures — are openly skeptical of the cease-fire agreement and even challenge its legitimacy.

Smaller groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Public Resistance, are wild cards. They are not formally parties to the agreement, though a Palestinian spokesman said they would honor the cease-fire.

Several Al Aqsa cells, however, remain defiant.

Hidden in the labyrinthine back alleys of Nablus’ Balata refugee district — an area infamous as a militant stronghold — three Al Aqsa officers assailed Palestinian leaders Friday for negotiating the truce.

Each said he had about 30 operatives under his command and that no one expected a break in the fighting.

“Let them write whatever they want. That’s only on paper,” said Abu Khaled, who, like his comrades, used a pseudonym for fear of the Israeli army. “Nothing will happen in the land of reality.”

The military wing of Fatah was set up a year before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising against Israel in September 2000. The men say they were trained to combat corruption within the Palestinian Authority, but some Israelis see the wing’s existence as proof that the uprising was not spontaneous.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, founded by a Balata resident, is blamed for some of the worst suicide bombings in the uprising. The strikes helped Fatah maintain its top position in the Palestinian resistance movement, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The three Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade officers concurred that such Fatah leaders as Mr. Arafat and Marwan Barghouti, who reportedly helped broker the cease-fire from an Israeli jail, won’t be able to enforce the agreement on the fighters in Nablus.

“They are not in control of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade,” said Abu Hussein, 33, who was first arrested by Israel in 1986 and has spent most of his time in prison. “We heed what the people say and receive our strength from the people.”

The fighters, wanted by Israel, rely on Balata residents to shelter them from the Israeli soldiers who comb the neighborhood nightly. They chain-smoke and, as the minutes pass, become skittish about staying put for too long.

When Israel reoccupied Nablus in April last year, the militants were driven underground. Now that the seven founders of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have been arrested or killed by Israel, the militants know every day could be their last.

Israel “won’t rest until they’ve assassinated all of the Palestinian leadership,” Abu Hussein said. “They have to understand that if they assassinate someone, 101 people will come to take their place.”

Like the road map, the Palestinian cease-fire calls for a halt to Israel’s targeted killings and incursions into Palestinian cities, a pullback, and a release of hundreds of prisoners. But Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade commanders say they have little hope that these will be implemented.

“Even the word ‘if’ doesn’t exist in our dictionary,” Abu Khaled said. “Do you think they’re going to dismantle their rockets and bases in Gaza and put them in the deepfreeze?”

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