Arab Militants Waver Between Terror and Dialogue

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNS) - The new mood of Mideast optimism has prompted a re-evaluation by Arab terrorist groups, with some reiterating their militant opposition to Israel, while others consider softening their stance to adapt to the new reality.

"It's a very interesting transitional period," Israeli counter-terrorism specialist Ely Karmon told "Very few people can say what will happen. The atmosphere is much more positive, but difficulties may lie ahead."

As a major sponsor of Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process, Syria was the key, said Karmon, who heads the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism near Tel Aviv. "The following weeks will see if Syria changes its position, and renounces the use of terrorism," he said.

Mixed signals have come from Damascus. In an apparent gesture ahead of peace talks with Israel, Vice President Abdel-Halim Kaddam reportedly told Palestinian groups based in Damascus to halt violence against Israel and focus on political activity.

But an official government spokesman issued a written statement Wednesday saying that Syria "does not interfere in the activities" of the Palestinian factions based there. Nonetheless, there were signs of cracks Wednesday in a ten-member alliance of "rejectionist" organizations with offices in Damascus.

Lining up on the side of violence were the two Islamist organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose terrorist campaign on Israel's streets has exacted a heavy toll since the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed.

They and several lesser known Palestinian groups released a joint statement saying they remained committed to the Palestinian charter, which rejects Israel's right to exist.

But two secular-leftist factions broke ranks and expressed interest in meeting Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat for reconciliation talks after years of rejecting the PA and Oslo.

Analysts say Arafat is likely to welcome the shift by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He is keen to unify Palestinian factions to strengthen his position in negotiations with Israel.

Although the apparent change of heart by the PFLP and DFLP is good news for Israel, its most dangerous Palestinian enemies remain Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Between them, the two have killed more than 280 Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks since 1993.

Karmon said neither the PFLP nor the DFLP had been particularly active in terrorism in recent years. Islamic Jihad, too, had been weakened since the 1995 death of its leader, Fathi Shkaki.

Hamas remains the wildcard. Although it has an office in Damascus and gets military and moral support from Tehran, Hamas is largely independent of Syrian and Iranian influence.

Karmon said he believed Hamas had been operationally weakened over the past year, with the deaths and arrests of some of its military leaders.

Two factors would influence its decision on how to proceed: its relationship with the PA, and the relationship between the internal leadership in Gaza, and external leadership, based mainly in Jordan.

Hamas faced a dilemma: If Israeli-PA peace talks resulted in the handover of more territory by Israel, this would obviously be to its advantage. At the same time, it remains opposed to a peace agreement that would entail Palestinian compromises.

In recent statements all but ignored by the media, Hamas' Gaza-based spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin confirmed that his organization would continue to pursue the path of violence.

Yassin dismissed hopes of peace expressed by Arab leaders following the election of Prime Minister Ehud Barak as "baseless."

"There is no justification whatsoever for the Palestinian Authority and Arabs to pin such high hopes on Barak, given his bloodstained history," Yassin said, in apparent reference to Barak's background in Israeli's elite anti-terror unit.

Anyone believing Palestine could be recovered without using "the language of force from a generation of strength, jihad and martyrdom" was dreaming.

"We will never surrender a single grain of our soil or a drop of our water as well as our seas," said Yassin. "We consider Palestine to be Islamic from the river to the sea."

(The expression "from the river to the sea" refers to the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, which includes the West Bank and Gaza, as well as all of Israel-proper.)

Yassin's statements stand in stark contrast to those made by other Arab politicians since Barak formed his government early this month. The leaders of Syria, Egypt, Jordan and the PA have expressed various levels of confidence in the new prime minister.

Another militant group that confirmed its commitment to violent struggle Wednesday is Hizb'Allah, which operates in southern Lebanon under Syrian patronage.

Hizb'Allah political council head Mohammed Raad told a Beirut newspaper the organization would continue its attempts to kill Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon, and denied reports that Syria had ordered it to dismantle its military wing.

Raad dismissed the suggestion that a three-week lull in serious clashes in southern Lebanon was the result of a Syrian directive, saying "this could be the calm before the storm."

Karmon predicted that, should Syria take a strategic decision to rein in Hizb'Allah in the interests of improving the climate for negotiations, a Syria-Hizb'Allah clash may result.

"Syria will try to persuade Hizb'Allah first, but if Hizb'Allah won't do so, Syria will use force," he said, noting President Hafez Assad had done so before.

In 1982, Syrian forces killed thousands of citizens when it crushed a Muslim rebellion launched from the town of Hama.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow