When Imad Abu Assad gazes at his daughter Lujain bouncing on his knee, he sees not only a gurgling four-month-old infant, but a "freedom fighter." Abu Assad, one of the few remaining senior Islamic Jihad
leaders in Tulkarm, prophesies a long and bitter fight against Israel
, one that has taken a bloody upsurge over recent weeks.
Following a string of suicide attacks on Israeli cities, capped with the October 26 Hadera
bombing that killed five Israelis, the IDF launched an offensive to root out the terrorist group from the West Bank. In the past two months the army has killed more than a dozen Jihad men and arrested scores, according to the IDF.
Hunted, but not cowed, Abu Assad, interviewed in the Tulkarm Refugee Camp, vowed that his Iranian-backed group would continue to dispatch suicide bombers to Israel until "all of Palestine
, not the prison of Gaza
and the West Bank, are liberatedâ€¦ Even if we accept a state on 1967 land," he continued, "my daughter never will."
In a rare interview in the Tulkarm refugee camp Abu Assad revealed a fractured group, riddled with losses but one that continues to lure men young enough and idealistic enough to die for the cause. He was accompanied to the meeting by a 20-year-old man who said he had been a Jihad member since he was 15.
Five years ago, notes Abu Assad, by way of example, his refugee camp was home to some 40 wanted men from Islamic Jihad. Only three are alive today. The rest died attacking Israel, were killed in IDF raids, or were arrested. Abu Assad, 28, his body riddled with shrapnel after two Israeli assassination attempts, spent the better part of the past three years in rehab for his wounds. The explosion knocked out most of his lower teeth.
Following Israel's assassination of Islamic Jihad leader Luay Sa'adi two weeks ago, all those affiliated with the group - the IDF estimates there are between 100 and 300 active fighters in the West Bank - have gone underground. They rarely sleep in the same place on consecutive nights, and skirt their homes and neighborhoods as much as possible.
Abu Assad, like his colleagues across the West Bank, is reconciled to an almost certain death. "I will not escape. How will I be saved when 30 patrol jeeps come for me and a helicopter circles overhead?" he asked. Like other Islamic Jihad terrorists, Abu Assad, who asked to use this last name as a nom-de-guerre, prefers death to arrest.
Abu Assad's daughter Lujain wouldn't be the only family member to join the fight against Israel. Three of Abu Assad's cousins and one of his brothers are doing time in Israeli prisons for offenses related to membership in Islamic Jihad. Years ago, his brother spray-painted this slogan on the family's Tulkarm Refugee Camp home: "My mother bore me to fight, Islamic Jihad armed me."
With its hyper-radical ideology, Islamic Jihad has single-handedly derailed two cease-fires brokered by the Palestinian Authority
. Its "pure" Islamic ideology, explains Dr. Mifleh Uthman - who denies a direct affiliation with the group, but who Palestinian sources say is a prominent activist - derives from its conviction that no political solution will ever solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. "All the verses in Koran confirm that Israel will never give in," he said.
Assaf Maliach, a senior researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center
Herzliya noted that "it doesn't matter how hard you strike at Islamic Jihad, they'll come back. You are fighting faith, and that is nearly impossible to kill. It is like asking a man who believes in God to stop believing."
The group's dogma appears to be a concoction of Islamic xenophobia and Jew-hatred, predicated on the support of Iran
. Uthman, who works as a dentist, explained that "Iran gives Islamic Jihad moral support and aid in all forms because that is the duty for people who hate America."
Islamic Jihad's faith in its struggle dates to 1981, when the group was founded in Gaza. As opposed to Hamas
, explained Maliach, Islamic Jihad "believes it has to free Palestine immediately." Hamas, on the other hand, "believes in educating society first, and then in the future moving on to freeing Palestine." Whereas Hamas has mobilized its hefty political machinery ahead of Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for late January, Islamic Jihad has announced it will not run for the parliament.
That ideology and Israel's systematic decapitation of its leadership leaves too few at the helm. "Everyone I know from the Jihad is dead or in prison," said Abdel Karim Dalbah, a Tulkarm-based political analyst. He rattles off a list of names, capping it with Luay Sa'adi, killed in an arrest raid two weeks ago.
For some Palestinians the explosive t te- -t te between Islamic Jihad and Israel seems almost personal. "At the end of the day we pay the price for the personal war between Islamic Jihad and Israel," said analyst Dalbah.
Following the recent bombings Israel slapped greater restrictions on Palestinian travel and tightened its control on Palestinian towns and cities. Palestinians like Dalbah call it "collective punishment." The IDF insists the restrictions are precautionary.
The result, said Dalbah, is actually Islamic Jihad's resurgence. "The people's sympathy is on their sideâ€¦ They have also gained the trust of the [Palestinian street] because they did not stop the violence. They are considered a 'purer' group," he said.
The ICT's Maliach explained that Hamas's adherence to the period of calm since February elevated its standing abroad, but tarnished its credibility in the Palestinian street. A potential suicide bomber is now much more likely to offer himself to Islamic Jihad than another group, noted Maliach.
And while the hazards of affiliation with Islamic Jihad are vast, Islamic Jihad's "purity of arms" is above all, sighed Dalbah, attractive to Palestinian youth.