For one gunman, it's a ballot over bullets

An Aksa Martyrs Brigade leader is hanging up his AK-47 and turning to politics.

al aksa man gun 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
al aksa man gun 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
An IDF jeep rolled up to 15-year-old Nasser Juma in Nablus one night in 1985. The two soldiers inside, their legs dangling casually out the back, tossed a yogurt container at the boy. They hooted with laughter at the spattered mess on his shirt, and the jeep rumbled off. Humiliated, Juma vowed to get the last laugh. So he went home, filled two glass bottles with gasoline, stuffed a swatch of cloth down their necks and waited for the bus to wind down the hill from the settlement of Eilon Moreh. His Molotov cocktails exploded in a splash of red. So began Juma's 23-year career as a Fatah tough, a career punctuated by stints in Israeli and Palestinian Authority prisons and culminating with his leadership of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades in the northern West Bank. Now Juma, 38, a father of one who shaves his balding pate, wants to hang up his rifle and become a politician. He is running in the Fatah primaries which kick off Friday, and hopes to gain a spot on Fatah's list, making him eligible to run for the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council. Fatah is the largest and most influential Palestinian faction. With Yasser Arafat a year in the grave and the fight against the IDF in the West Bank increasingly futile, Fatah fighters of all stripes, like Juma, are contemplating their future. Jamal Abu Rob, an Aksa Martyrs Brigades leader from the Jenin area nicknamed Hitler by his friends, has taken the same path. While Abu Rob has boasted of killing three Israelis and two collaborators; Juma won't say. Still, all hope politics will yield amnesty. Zakariya Zubeidi, Juma's colleague in Jenin, has said he hopes to gain a commission as a colonel or general in the PA security services. "Practically," he said, "the Brigades is finished." Most gunmen are either dead, in Israeli prisons or joining the PA security forces, he said. He is not retiring, Juma said, "but starting a new beginning." By early 2003, dispatching suicide bombers struck Juma as a "grave mistake." In a series of interviews over the past month, he laid out a theory of resistance that relies on mending the Palestinian polity from the inside out. But politics has proven as cutthroat as the fight against Israel. Fatah members have huddled every night this past week to hammer out the rules for the primaries. The old guard has demanded that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas have veto power over the creation of the lists. The young guard, Juma included, have rejected this. Members of the Fatah central committee, which oversees the primaries, would not comment on their list. An esoteric group, called the Group of the Wise, will be in charge of rejecting "unsuitable" candidates, said Fatah members. And a reported 600,000 Fatah members in the West Bank will vote for their favorites over the next week. Still, increasing democratization in the territories, observed Dr. Mustapha Barghouti, president of the Palestinian National Initiative, "means accountability to the public." And it is that trend that is forcing Fatah into primaries in the first time since its establishment in 1959, he said, predicting the very act of "going through the primaries will help Fatah change." Juma and his crew of former terrorists believe Juma, one of the Aksa Brigades founding fathers, stands a solid chance of being elected. His campaign manager, a rough-shaven man in a heavy leather coat, observed in an interview Thursday that Juma's "qualifications as a resistance fighter shows how much he cares about the homeland." As for offering a political platform, both Juma and his manager were rather hazy. They weren't sure he needed anything beyond his history with an AK-47. Yoram Schweitzer, an expert on Fatah at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, noted that this is a period of "generational transition, only that the older generation is not leaving its spots." He added that men like Juma were only put in the position of even being considered on ballots by the lawless behavior of their former comrades, who in recent months have been kidnapping foreigners, shooting at their leaders and trashing Western restaurants. In recent years, Juma met this reporter in a tomb-like hideout tucked above the Nablus casbah. But last week he chose Darna, Ramallah's swankiest restaurant, as a meeting spot. When it was noted that it was exactly a year since cash-starved gunmen ransacked the restaurant as Arafat lay dying in a Paris hospital, Juma chuckled. Both he and the Brigades had come a long way. Juma preferred to say he was knee-deep in a fight to reform Fatah from within. Few know better than Juma the internal rot that corrodes Fatah. In the heady days of the Oslo Accords, Juma briefly became Yasser Arafat's number one nemesis. The day before Arafat came to speak to a roaring crowd of tens of thousands in Nablus in 1995, Juma heard that he was a wanted man, not by Israel but by the PA. Juma was picked up in Ramallah, with his closest Fatah confidant, Mahmoud al-Ijmail, and jailed in Jericho. But the torture took place in the PA's so-called Naval Academy in Nablus. After beating Juma to within an inch of his life, his captors went a blow too far and killed Ijmail. They forced Juma to watch the beatings. In the concussive haze of torture, he learned of his implication in an assassination plot against Arafat. It was news to him. Fifteen months later, he was released and in a meeting requested by Arafat, the chairman blubbered his apologies, telling Juma that someone in the Fatah hierarchy had framed him. The fatherly relations Arafat lavished on Juma lasted throughout the first two years of the intifada, when he earmarked $150,000-$200,000 a month for the Brigades' Nablus operations. Juma claimed that "a few pennies" trickled down to him and his men while "they were dying for Palestine." The rest of the money lined the pockets of those in Arafat's court. The IDF caught up with Juma about seven or eight months after his first Molotov cocktail incident. By 20, he was a hardened veteran of Israeli prisons. Sitting back in his chair at Darna, Juma mused that perhaps "the time is ripe for a different kind of resistance."