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Palestinian armed groups remain sidelined — for now

Analysis: As Abbas' support declines and death toll rises, how long can he restrain Palestinian fighters?

The second Palestinian intifada that raged from 2000 to 2005 was dominated by armed groups that targeted Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians, but despite the rising death toll among unarmed Palestinians, those armed groups are largely absent from today's uprising. A few of their flags can be seen waving at protests or shrouding the bodies of youths killed in clashes with Israeli forces, but — despite opinion polls showing increased support for confronting the occupation with arms — the likes of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade are struggling to regain their relevance after a decade of being suppressed by the Palestinian Authority.

Still, the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to negotiate an end to the occupation may be changing the equation. Twice last week, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade fighters exchanged gunfire with Israeli forces at Qalandiya refugee camp in the West Bank during Israeli raids on homes in the camp. The organization announced last week that it was breaking a yearlong truce with Israel.

However, Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, warned not to draw any conclusions from those “localized” gunfights.

The fighters were “most likely acting on their own initiatives and outside of any broader organizational framework,” Rabbani told Al Jazeera America.

At the same time, members of Hamas in Gaza have encouraged Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Israel to continue stabbing attacks against Israelis and have called for a third intifada. But as Benedetta Berti, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, points out, the group “has not shown—so far—an interest in taking its support one step further and in directly participating in the confrontation by attacking Israel.”

“A similar mix of supportive rhetoric but lack of direct action roughly describes the posture taken by most armed groups,” Berti told Al Jazeera.

Confronting Israel, this time around, has been left to unarmed youths hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at checkpoints. Despite the rhetoric from Hamas, stabbing attacks on Israelis have mostly been the work of individuals unaffiliated with political or armed groups.

PA crackdown

Abbas took over from the iconic national leader Yasser Arafat in 2004, believing that the Second Intifada — in which Arafat had encouraged armed groups to attack Israelis following the failure of peace talks — had been an unmitigated disaster for Palestinians. It not only brought a ruinous siege on the Palestinian cities of the occupied West Bank, but the suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians alienated much of the international support for Palestinian national claims.

Abbas therefore made it a priority to suppress any violence against Israel, using his security forces to devasating effect on Palestinian armed groups. In 2007, Abbas announced the disarmament of “all the armed militias and irregular military or paramilitary groups.” And the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment continues to express its satisfaction with the performance of those PA security forces. 

Under a 2007 amnesty deal, Israel agreed to stop hunting down 178 of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ most wanted fighters in return for the men abandoning armed activity against Israel. The men were reincorporated into the PA security forces and remain under strict surveillance.

“In 2000, basically (Al-Aqsa Martyrs) had the passive encouragements or approvals of the political leadership to” launch attack against Israel, Rabbani said. “You now have a situation where you have a political leadership that has been dead-set against that.”

As for other groups, including Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigades, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades, many of their fighters and activists in the West Bank are often arrested (and in some cases allegedly tortured) by the PA with Israeli coordination. The rest, out of fear of being targeted by Israel or the PA, have remained in hiding for years.

“Abbas has been interested in suppressing political and armed opposition; which has also curtailed the freedom of action for many groups,” Berti said.

“But if this round of violence escalates, many ‘sleeper’ or ‘dormant’ cells could become active,” Berti added.

Abbas' vehement opposition to violence may not reflect the consensus in Palestinian society. A recent poll by Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey found that 57 percent support an armed intifada in the absence of a viable peace process for ending the occupation. The survey also found that “two thirds demand the president’s resignation.”

The confrontations that continue to raise the Palestinian death toll are likely to amplify the rejection of Abbas, and armed groups may waiting to see which direction the protests and popular support take.

Added Berti, “An escalation in the West Bank would indeed challenge Abbas’s grip on power.”

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