Remembering Abu Jihad and why, really, the Israelis killed him
By Alan Hart
More than 24 years after the event, and to prevent a battle with the newspaper in the courts, Israeli military censors cleared for publication by Yediot Ahronot a truth – that it was Israeli commandoes who, on 16 April 1988, went all the way to Tunis to murder Abu Jihad, the co-founder with Arafat of Fatah and, at the time of his death, Arafat’s number two and most likely successor in the event of his assassination.
The short story as now told by Yediot Ahronot confirms the long and detailed account as set down in the 1994 edition of my book Arafat (which was an updated version of the 1984 first edition with the title Arafat – Terrorist or Peacemaker?)
In this article my purpose is to provide the context for the Israeli decision to terminate Abu Jihad, and there is no better way of doing it than by offering my internet readers, here and now, the text of a very short chapter in Volume Three of the American edition of my book Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews. It, Chapter 14, has the title Zionism as the Recruiting Sergeant for Violent Islamic Fundamentalism (Palestinian Style).
Here is the text.
December 1987 saw the start of the first intifada or Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. As it gathered momentum it captured and held the Western media’s attention, demonstrating once again that it was only when Palestinians resorted to violence, in this case stone-throwing, that their cry for a measure of justice was heard.
As part of its global propaganda effort to have the world believe that Arafat in faraway Tunis was an irrelevance, Zionism asserted that the uprising in the Occupied Territories had nothing to do with Arafat and his PLO, and that he was merely jumping onto the intifada bandwagon – to give his “discredited” organisation the appearance of life after death. (Two years earlier Israeli jets had gone all the way to Tunis to destroy Arafat’s headquarters and blow him to pieces! By chance, apparently, Arafat was not at his desk when the bombs fell. The Israelis then were desperate to kill him because President Reagan’s new Secretary of State, George Shultz, had been trying, Vance-like, to involve the PLO in the peace process; and Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was about to make history by inviting two senior PLO executives to London for official talks. For their own propaganda purposes Israeli and other gut-Zionists proclaimed that Arafat was irrelevant but their actions demonstrated that they knew he was not.)
The explosion of Palestinian anger which became the first uprising against Israeli occupation was spontaneous, but Arafat and his leadership colleagues had anticipated it and made plans to sustain it.
Even as he was sailing away from Beirut for Tunis in August of 1982, Arafat was thinking about how to play the “internal (Occupied Territories) card”, to prevent the PLO being cancelled as a factor in the Middle East peace equation.
The following year he ordered a “General Exercise” in and around Nablus. “General Exercise” was the code for a confrontation between the PLO’s supporters and the occupying Israeli army. It was Arafat’s way of testing the feelings and mood of Palestinians throughout the Occupied Territories. The response was exactly what Arafat and Abu Jihad had predicted it would be. The confrontation in Nablus took place, but there was no support for the idea that it should be sustained and extended. A popular uprising was still the stuff of dreams.
Arafat, Abu Jihad and Hani Hassan (Arafat’s chief adviser and trouble-shooter) then conducted a detailed investigation of why the “General Exercise” had failed to inspire even a token demonstration of widespread support for the PLO. “We came to a very dramatic conclusion”, Hani told me. “We discovered that the silent majority of our people in the Occupied Territories had given their hearts if not their minds to the Islamic fundamentalists.”
What explained this enormous shift of popular opinion, a change of heart which suggested, among other things, that Arafat’s moderate PLO was in danger of becoming an irrelevance in the Occupied Territories?
Short answer – despair.
There was first of all, and obviously, the despair born of 20 years of occupation and often-brutal Israeli repression. But in the wake of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and its siege of Beirut there were, as Hani Hassan put it, “two new factors of despair.”
The first was the realisation that Arafat’s policy of politics and compromise with Israel was getting the Palestinians nowhere.
The second, a bitter lesson for a new generation of Palestinians, was that they were on their own when the crunch came. The proof was the way the Arab regimes had sat on their backsides and watched for weeks as Sharon tried to finish the PLO in Beirut.
Against that backdrop it was inevitable that more and more Palestinians in the Occupied Territories would begin to see Islamic fundamentalism as the only force capable of changing the status quo. But what surprised and shocked Arafat and his leadership colleagues was the number of Palestinians who had moved or who were moving in the direction of the fundamentalists. Hani said: “We discovered that not less than 60 percent of our young people in the Occupied Territories were thinking that Islamic fundamentalism had more to offer than the PLO.”
The violent Islamic fundamentalism (Palestinian style) that Arafat and his leadership colleagues saw coming as the inevitable product of continuing Israeli occupation and the new wave of Palestinian resistance would be institutionalised in 1988, when Hamas was founded in Gaza by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a paralysed, wheelchair-bound religious teacher. In Arabic Hamas means zeal. It is also an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement.
For Arafat the consequences of Islamic fundamentalists making the running in the Occupied Territories were terrifying. (As they ought to have been to rational Israelis). First there was the obvious danger that the PLO would become an irrelevance for a majority of Palestinians. But that was not the worst-case scenario. If there was a popular uprising, and if the Islamic fundamentalists could claim most of the credit for it, Arafat – even if the PLO did retain some credibility – might not be able to deliver the compromise that he had struggled for six years to sell to his people.
So what at the beginning of 1984 were Arafat and his leadership colleagues to do?
They knew they could not force the pace in the Occupied Territories and that a popular uprising would have to be spontaneous, generated from within; but they set about planning and putting into place the support networks and mechanisms that would sustain the explosion of despair – prevent Israeli’s military and other security services putting it down with speed – when it happened.
Soon after it started on 9 December 1987 the day-to-day management, direction and co-ordination of the first intifada was, in fact, taken over, as planned, by Abu Jihad, then Arafat’s deputy and most likely successor as well as commander of the PLO’s scattered and mission-less military forces.
But Arafat’s personal contribution to sustaining the uprising was significant. He had what he described to me as his “secret weapon”. From a British company (Racal-Tacticom in Reading) he had purchased some state-of-the-art, space-age radio equipment – a transmitter and scores of mini-receivers – which enabled him to plug into the Arab communications satellite (AbSat) and talk directly to Palestinian demonstrators on street corners when they were confronting the Israeli army.
Hani Hassan spoke about the impact of Arafat’s spiritual presence on the front lines in the Occupied Territories with great excitement. “You can’t imagine”, he told me. “The confrontations were very tough. Even when they were not being killed or seriously wounded (for throwing stones at Israel’s mighty warriors) our people were taking a lot of punishment. So naturally there were times when their morale was low. And that’s when Arafat lifted their spirits. Somebody would produce a receiver to link the demonstrators to him in Tunis. The one who spoke directly with him was overcome with emotion and enthusiasm. He would proudly tell the others, ‘I’ve just talked to Abu Amar. He says we must continue.’”
It was, however, Abu Jihad’s oversight management and control, from the bedroom of his modest, whitewashed villa in Sidi Bou Said, a suburb to the north-east of Tunis, that prevented the Israelis from putting down the first intifada as quickly as they had assumed they could by collective punishments, arrests, torture and killing. That was why, on 16 April 1988, Israeli Special Forces went all the way to Tunis to assassinate Abu Jihad in his bedroom.
Though it was enclosed by a wall eight feet high, the villa occupied an exposed corner position at a road junction inside what many local people described as the “Forbidden Zone” because of its security status. The Tunisian president’s palace and the American Ambassador’s residence were almost within shouting distance of Abu Jihad’s villa. When he was looking for a family home he had been directed to the location by Tunisian officials. They told him there was no other place where his security could be guaranteed. When the Israelis came ashore they were dressed as Tunisian security forces. They knew it was going to be an easy kill because Israeli agents had done a thorough reconnaissance job. They had discovered that Abu Jihad refused to surround himself with bodyguards of his own, in order to live as normal a life as possible with his childhood sweetheart and their children.
From Israel’s point of view Abu Jihad’s murder had the desired effect. Arafat was the man who inspired the Palestinian struggle, but Abu Jihad was the man who made it happen. Arafat was the man most respected by most Palestinians as the symbol of regenerated Palestinian nationalism, but Abu Jihad was the man the fighters and their families (the resistors of Israeli occupation) most admired. On an emotional as well as an organisational level, his murder was a huge setback for the resistance movement in the Occupied Territories.
When the first intifada started Israelis had a choice of two options. One was to continue living by the sword. The other was to say to themselves something like: “If we are not to find ourselves in a nightmare situation of our own making, we had better negotiate our way out of occupation.” There were rational Israelis who did say such things. But gut-Zionism prevailed. It was congenitally incapable of responding to the Palestinian cry for even a minimum of justice with anything but the iron fist. Greater Israel was to be strengthened and consolidated, not dismantled, even at the price of there being no peace, ever.
It was then that some of those who had done most to make a reality of Zionism’s mad dream did a most foolish thing. In the hope of weakening support for Arafat’s PLO in the Occupied Territories, they encouraged the growth of Hamas. The extent to which Israel assisted the development of Islamic fundamentalism (Palestinian style) is still a well kept secret.
In retrospect it can be said that if Israel had been willing to accept Arafat’s PLO as a negotiating partner in the mid to late 1980s, Hamas in particular, and Islamic fundamentalism in general, could not and would not have emerged as an unmanageable threat to anybody in the context of the struggle for Palestine. In that context the real recruiting sergeant of Islamic fundamentalism (Palestinian style) for resistance was Zionism’s arrogance of power and insufferable self-righteousness