Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 August - 3 September 2003
Issue No. 653
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Marked for liquidation

This week's bloody events announced the death of the unilateral Palestinian ceasefire, reports Khaled Amayreh, in Hebron, and below, traces the life and politial career of Ismael Abu Shanab, a moderate Hamas leader assassinated by Israel

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A young Palestinian prepares to unleash another barrage of stones at an Israeli army tank in Jenin on Tuesday, 26 August
After repeatedly seeking to destroy the nearly three-month old ceasefire unilaterally declared by Palestinian resistance groups, in agreement with the Palestinian Authority, by systematically killing their activists, the government of Ariel Sharon this week finally got what it has so tenaciously provoked.

Shortly after sunset on Tuesday, a 35-year- old Hebron teacher disguised himself as an ultra-orthodox Jew and boarded an Israeli bus in West Jerusalem. Moments later, he detonated a large bomb that was strapped to his body, killing himself and as many as 21 Israelis, and wounded nearly 120. Some of the victims were children and women.

The suicide bomber was identified as Raed Mesk, a school teacher who was due to receive his masters degree in a few days. In a videotaped message, Mesk said he was carrying out the bombing in retaliation for Israel's assassination of prominent Hamas military leader Abdullah Kawasmi in Hebron three months ago, and the assassination of Hamas activist Mohamed Sidr two weeks ago. According to relatives, Mesk was close friends with the two men.

In an immediate reaction, the Palestinian Authority strongly condemned the attack, calling it a "terrorist act". But condemnation was not all that the PA had in mind. PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas suspended all contacts with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, accusing the two resistance groups of breaking the ceasefire with Israel.

There are however many indications that the bombing was a local initiative by Hamas militants in Hebron rather than the result of a central decision by the leadership of Hamas. This might explain why Hamas waited more than nine hours before reluctantly declaring its responsibility for the bombing. The group said the bombing was in response to the killing of more than 20 Palestinians, including prominent Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, since the hudna agreement was reached on 29 June.

As expected, the bombing gave the government of Ariel Sharon the opportunity it seemed to have been awaiting to resume its open war against the Palestinians and destroy the American-backed roadmap. Sharon gave the PA what amounts to an ultimatum to act against Hamas and destroy its "infrastructure".

In response, PA officials went into marathon meetings after a series of stringent measures were taken against the two Islamist resistance groups. Those included a campaign to confiscate "illegal weapons" and barring media interviews with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. But Sharon and his defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, were in no mood to accept anything but blood. And blood, there was.

On Thursday, an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship fired three or four missiles at the car of moderate Hamas Spokesman Ismael Abu Shanab, killing him and two of his aides instantly.

It is difficult to figure out why Israel chose such a moderate leader, who on several occasions had voiced support for the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

One Israeli officer was quoted in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz as saying that Abu Shanab was assassinated "because he was the only one available". But Abu Shanab's assassination was far from being a mere tit-for-tat reaction to the West Jerusalem bus bombing. Israeli military leaders and commanders have vowed to assassinate all Hamas political leaders in the West Bank, Gaza and Syria, saying that the assassination of Abu Shanab was merely the beginning.

Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces Lt General Moshe Ya'alon said on Monday that "every member of Hamas is a potential target for liquidation." The warning was not rhetorical. Shortly before sunset on Sunday, another Israeli Apache helicopter fired four hell-fire missiles at a group of Hamas activists near a crowded beach front, killing four men and wounding more than a dozen bystanders. Some of the victims were mutilated beyond recognition and one of them was decapitated by the assault, which took place just less than 100-metres from the office of Palestinian Security Chief Mohamed Dahlan.

"When the first missile hit the car, four people jumped out and then three more missiles were fired at them. It was a horrifying thing to see," said one Palestinian journalist who witnessed the gruesome scene.

Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades declared the end of the ceasefire.

"How can anyone dare talk about a hudna when the Israelis are slaughtering our people and leaders?" asked Hamas Spokesman Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantissi.

Since the bus bombing on 19 August, the Israeli army has been wreaking havoc on Palestinian population centres, destroying roads, homes, farms, and public facilities as well as resuming some of the worst measures taken during the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

On Friday, the Israeli army carried out the largest and most wanton home demolitions in years, destroying four houses and an entire commercial market in Nazlat Isa near Tulkarm. (see ...)

Faced with a recalcitrant Israeli government and a rampaging army, the PA is trying desperately to reinstate the truce and revive talks towards the implementation of the increasingly precarious roadmap. Such attempts, however, are not helped by the growing rift between PA leader Yasser Arafat and his prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

On Monday, Arafat appointed Jebril Rajoub, former chief of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank as national security advisor. Palestinian observers viewed the decision as a step intended to strengthen Arafat's camp against the Abbas-Dahlan camp, which is perceived to be backed by the US.

Other Palestinians, however, have downplayed the decision, arguing that Rajoub, Dahlan, and even Arafat himself would not be able to do much so long as the Israeli occupation army continues to rampage through the West Bank and so long as the US refuses to pressure Israel into ending the occupation.

Killing moderation

Ismael Abu Shanab Ismael Abu Shanab was born in the central Gaza refugee camp of Nuseirat in 1950, exactly two years after his family was forcibly expelled from the village of Al-Jayyeh, near the present-day Israeli city of Ashkelon.

Abu Shanab grauated from school in 1966, classed as among the top ten graduates in Gaza that year. This qualified him to be accepted at newly-opened Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, then, as now, a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism. However, the eruption of the 1967-Arab-Israeli War and Israel's subsequent occupation disrupted his studies. It was not until 1972 that Abu Shanab was able to travel to Egypt to continue his higher education. He received a BSc in civil engineering from the University of Mansura, north of Cairo.

While at college, Abu Shanab was influenced by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was undergoing a revival following years of repression under Gamal Abdel-Nasser's leadership.

Following his graduation in 1977, Abu Shanab returned to Gaza City where he worked at the municipal council for the next four years. He then travelled to the United States where he obtained a masters degree in civil engineering.

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Mourners of assassinated Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab proceed through the streets of Gaza City
Upon his return to Gaza, Abu Shanab came into contact with such Islamist figures as Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Ibrahim Magadmeh and Fathi Shekaki, the Islamic Jihad founder and leader who was assassinated by the Israeli Mossad in Malta nearly ten years ago.

Abu Shanab eventually joined the political leadership of Hamas.

In 1989, he and many other Islamist figures were arrested by the Israeli military for their involvement in anti-occupation activities. Abu Shanab was sentenced to eight years in prison. Following his release in 1997, he emerged as one of Hamas's most mature political leaders. But between 1999-2001, when Hamas was being continually hounded by the Palestinian Authority (PA), Abu Shanab was twice arrested by the Palestinian police.

Despite his arrest, Abu Shanab later became the Hamas leader who represented the group in talks between the PA and other Palestinian resistance groups. Prior to his assassination, Abu Shanab played an active role in getting the rest of the Hamas leadership to accept the hudna (cease-fire) that was reached with Israel on 29 June after intensive Egyptian mediation.

Many considered Abu Shanab a pragmatic and moderate leader, who had an aversion for rhetoric. "What is the point in speaking in rhetoric," he said a few months ago. "Let's be frank, we cannot destroy Israel. The practical solution is for us to have a state alongside Israel."

Abu Shanab is survived by a wife, five daughters and four sons. his eldest son Hassan is studying computer engineering in the US. His youngest son, Mesk, is two-years-old.

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