Dispatch

Victory or Death

Victory or Death

GAZA CITY — We met in a crowded cafe because Abu Anas thought it would be safer there. Refugees from war-torn areas of Gaza had established an impromptu tent camp on a slice of green space nearby, and they now filled the establishment, sitting in front of falafel sandwiches and glasses of tea. Three young men with laptops and cell phones arrayed in front of them sat with us, not speaking much — the media team of the Kataib Mujahideen, or Jihadists’ Brigade.

Abu Anas, a man in his 20s with a close-cropped beard, says he just arrived from the field — he is a fighter for this Islamist brigade, which coordinates closely with Hamas in the war against Israel. He is a university graduate and has a day job as a calligrapher.

"I have participated in all of the three wars [against Israel in the past five years] and am willing to participate in other wars," he says, smiling.

Israel’s domestic security service, the Shin Bet, considers the Jihadists’ Brigade a splinter group from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the Fatah party’s military wing. More recently, the Shin Bet said, the group has developed close financial and military ties with Hamas, to the extent that it was effectively a "subsidiary" of the larger Islamist movement, headquartered in the Gaza Strip. In January, the Shin Bet announced that it had thwarted a plan by the group to kidnap Israelis in the West Bank. Months later, the very same sort of attack would spark the current round of violence.

The Jihadists’ Brigade has played an active role in this round of violence. Its website claims that it has struck Israel with 445 rockets, missiles, and mortars and has engaged in five firefights with Israeli ground forces. Its YouTube page, meanwhile, advertises slow-motion shots of the group’s rocket launches. Another video, posted on June 18, shows the group’s fighters abducting a crudely Photoshopped stand-in for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

I met Abu Anas on Aug. 9, a day before Israel and the Palestinian factions would agree on another 72-hour cease-fire. We began talking about how to end the war — not just the current campaign in Gaza, but the entire conflict. The young fighter was clear: He’s not only fighting to lift the blockade on Gaza or to liberate the Palestinian territories occupied during the 1967 war. He wants more than that.

"We will continue our fights until we liberate all of Palestine," he said. "From Ras al-Naqoura [a town on the northern Israeli-Lebanese border] to Umm al-Rashrash [the Arabic name for the southern Israeli city of Eilat]."

And what about the Jewish Israelis who currently live in mainland Israel? Would they be welcome in this new Palestinian state?

"This is not my problem," Abu Anas said. "They can go…. The Jews came from Argentina, from Europe; they can return back to their homelands there."

Abu Anas said that all Palestinian factions — including the Jihadists’ Brigade — are united behind the demand that Israel must lift its siege on Gaza to end this current war. He said that the purpose of his brigade is to "fight God’s war and to liberate all the holy lands," a goal that is shared by the military factions fighting alongside him, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

I wanted to know what Abu Anas thought about the broader changes shaking the Middle East, notably the Islamic State’s advance across northern Iraq, where it now threatens to exterminate Iraq’s beleaguered minority communities. Does he see the Islamic State as a force for Sunni liberation — a movement that not only is trying to sweep away Kurdish militias and Shiite leaders in Iraq and Syria, but could also be a potential partner in fighting the Israelis?

His answer was initially ambiguous. "We are not criticizing any other groups," Abu Anas said. "Anyone who is fighting the Israelis and wants to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine, we are with them."

But when pressed further, Abu Anas refused to conceive of a battlefield beyond the borders of British-mandate Palestine. He chafed at the idea of picking sides in a Sunni-Shiite war, saying that he would support any Muslim who is focused on liberating Palestine. That presumably includes support from predominantly Shiite Iran, which has expanded its military support to Hamas during the current conflict.

"The story of Sunni and Shiite [divisions], it was created by the Israelis," he said. "It is trying to erase this matter in order to weaken the ummah [Islamic nation], and not to think about Palestine."

Though another cease-fire has taken hold in the Gaza Strip, for young men like Abu Anas, the war never truly stops. His house was destroyed in the war, he said, and Israeli shelling had claimed the life of one of his cousins, "who was like a brother to me." While he said that he would respect any cessation of violence agreed to by the Palestinian delegation in Cairo, he drew a clear distinction between the parties’ political and military wings: The military wings are completely united, he said, even as the political leaders might have different goals and are involved in their own maneuverings.

For Abu Anas, the diplomats are very far away, while his military comrades are an ever-present force in his life. He happily discusses the Jihadists’ Brigade’s capabilities — the rockets it has fired, the tunnels it has built, the "special forces" units that confronted Israeli soldiers during the ground invasion of Gaza. The group, he said, has lost nine fighters in this current round of violence and is willing to sacrifice more.

"From the beginning of the war, even during the truce, we are not leaving our position, and we are staying there, and in our tunnels, until the end of this battle," he said. "And until we achieve victory."