Letter From Bethlehem: Nothing To Lose

Ibrahim Ebayat moves like a man who knows that he's running out of time. As he hustles into the St. Georges Restaurant on Manger Square in Bethlehem, the 29-year-old guerrilla leader nervously scans the near-empty room, checking for unfamiliar faces. Five bodyguards take up positions at the entrance, brandishing an arsenal of weaponry--M16s, Kalashnikovs, pistols, grenades--and an equally impressive collection of cellular phones and two-way radios. A slim, unshaven man wearing a black leather bomber jacket, dungarees and brown leather boots, Ebayat can barely sit still; he chain smokes cigarettes, barks orders over four different mobile phones, and at one points dashes outside for a look after Fatah scouts on the streets send word that Israeli helicopters are circling the city. "I'm on alert 24 hours a day," he says, scooping up a piece of lamb with a wedge of hot pita bread. "It's a cat-and-mouse game that never ends."

Ebayat is the commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the military wing of Yasir Arafat's Fatah organization and the shock troops of the Palestinian uprising. For the past 18 months, these gunmen--known as Tanzim, Arabic for "organization"--have carried out hundreds of attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, keeping Israeli society on edge and provoking a series of ever more devastating counterattacks by the government of Ariel Sharon. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades have surpassed both Hamas and Islamic Jihad as the most prolific and widely known of the armed groups waging war against Israel, and their methods--sniper killings of settlers across the West Bank and Gaza, ambushes of Israeli troops at checkpoints and, increasingly, suicide bombings--have proven devastatingly effective. Most of the men on the list of 33 "most wanted" militants handed to Yasir Arafat last December by Israel's Minister of Defense Binyamin Ben Eliezer were leaders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and a high percentage of the militants targeted for assassination by Israeli hit squads have also come from the group. Dozens of Fatah militants have been killed, yet the determination of survivors such as Ebayat are one indication of the challenges Sharon faces as he tries to break the back of the uprising.

Ebayat has found himself in Israel's sights repeatedly during the 18-month long intifada. Israeli helicopters have twice fired missiles at his car. (He managed to escape both times.) Last month, he received an M-16 semiautomatic rifle from a Palestinian arms dealer; the weapon turned out to be booby trapped, and when an associate picked it up, it blew off the man's right hand. Perhaps as a measure of their frustration, the Israelis have lately resorted to sending him death threats. Recently, troops apprehended a member of Ebayat's gang at a checkpoint, Ebayat says, and sent the man back with a warning: "These are your final hours." "It had no psychological impact," Ebayat told me during a 40 minute conversation on the fly at the St. Georges Restaurant. "It has happened to me many times before."

His family has been part of Fatah since its origins in the 1960s, and he's had a long career as a militant. When the first Palestinian intifada erupted in 1987, Ebayat led a group of youthful stone throwers in running battles with Israeli troops, then spent three years in Israeli jails for his role in the protests. Radicalized further by his imprisonment, he toiled as a construction worker for most of the 1990s, but joined Fatah's military wing when the second uprising broke out. He was groomed for the leadership of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades by his first cousin, Atem Ebayat, who ran the guerrilla group in Bethlehem during the early days of the uprising. A brutal figure who last year allegedly executed three suspected Palestinian agents of the Israelis by shooting them in the head at point blank range, Atem was killed last fall by a booby trapped jeep that he'd purchased from an Israeli collaborator. In all, says Ibrahim Ebayat, eleven of his comrades have died in fighting or by assassination in the last eighteen months. One of the most recent victims was Raed Karmi, the 28-year-old Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades' commander in the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm, who was blown to bits by a remote-controlled bomb planted a few meters from his safe house last January. Ebayat says that he and his fellow guerrillas have drawn critical lessons from such killings. "You can always postpone your assassination by simple measures," he says. "We have learned that security and routine do not go together." He says he carefully screens all Fatah recruits, changes cars daily, rarely spends more than an hour in one place during daylight hours, and sleeps in a different house every night--"when I am able to sleep."

Ebayat was cagey about describing his exact role in the intifada, although he admitted that he'd taken part in "many operations" against settlers and soldiers in the Bethlehem area. Most recently, he told me, his group had staked out a settlement for a week then shot dead a female settler and wounded her husband as they drove toward Jerusalem. "None of Sharon's operations can deter us," he said. "If we die, we know are we martyrs. And if we succeed, it's another nail in the coffin of the Israeli occupation."

Five days after my first meeting with the guerrilla leader, I returned to Bethlehem in the hope of finding him again. During the intervening days the Israeli army had invaded the town's two refugee camps, Aida and Duheishe, rounding up suspected militants and killing seven people. Israeli tanks continued to seal off the entrances to the camps and held positions throughout the city. But dozens of Tanzim gunmen strutted openly around Manger Square, brandishing their pistols and rifles like invitees to an arms fair. A memorial service was in progress, honoring the suicide bomber who had blown up Jerusalem's Moment cafe last Saturday night, and the guerrillas emerged from their hiding places to pay homage to the Palestinians' latest "martyr," who had murdered 11 young Israelis in his act of self-immolation.

A few minutes after arriving at the scene, I spotted Ebayat's one-armed bodyguard "Rami" (the comrade who had picked up the booby trapped M-16) walking past the Church of the Nativity with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder; seconds later, Ebayat himself cruised into the square at the wheel of a silver Toyota Corolla. He looked weary, bleary eyed, and wasn't in the mood for a chat. "I've been on the run for the last couple of days," he told me, staring sullenly ahead of him. "But the Israelis didn't come close to me." I asked Ebayat whether he felt safe showing up in Manger Square, and he assured me that there was no safer place in Bethlehem. "They know they can't come in here, for a couple of reasons," Ebayat said. "There are lots of alleyways and corners and rooftops where our guys can ambush them. They know we'll inflict heavy losses. Second, this is one of the holy Christian sites--it would be a propaganda defeat if they came in and shot it up."

Ebayat told me that he knows his days are numbered. But he said that he had already groomed a successor--just as Atem Ebayat, his assassinated cousin, had prepared him--and "there are plenty of guys who can take my place," he said, as he steered his Toyota out of Manger Square toward one of the old city's labyrinthine streets. "None of us has anything to lose."