NABLUS, West Bank – The West Bank's sprawling refugee camps are filled with fighters willing to die for Mahmoud Titi, a militia leader who recruits and dispatches suicide bombers who target Israelis.
But Titi, a leader of the Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia with links to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, told The Associated Press his ultimate goal is to build a Palestinian liberation army that will hunt and kill Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers living in Palestinian areas.
Until then, he said in an interview Wednesday, he and his colleagues are poring over maps in search of new targets.
"Many of us know Israel very well and know the restaurants, cinemas and theaters," Titi said at the home of an Al Aqsa fighter who was killed in a clash with Israeli soldiers last week in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank.
Israel charges that Arafat is responsible for the violence, noting the link between his Fatah movement and the Al Aqsa militias.
However, the militants have defied Arafat, Palestinian officials say. Arafat met with militia leaders Tuesday and told them to stop attacking inside Israel, but they refused, the officials said.
Titi said the militants target Israeli civilians to avenge Palestinian civilians who have died in Israeli military strikes.
"I'm telling the Israeli people that we are not an enemy. The occupation is our enemy, not them," he said. "But when [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon attacks our people, so, we attack them. So, they pay the high price of the occupation."
The 30-year-old militia leader, wearing camouflage pants and a green sweater, said he prefers to strike military targets and Israeli settlers living on land that Palestinians claim for a future state.
Titi said that when he sent Ibrahim Hassouna off to Tel Aviv just after midnight on Tuesday, he instructed the 20-year-old officer in the Palestinian naval police to kill soldiers or policemen.
Instead, the militant armed with an M-16 fired on a restaurant and nightclub from an overpass and then burst through the doors, stabbing partygoers, killing three.
"He attacked civilians in a restaurant," Titi said. "I believe he saw soldiers or guards next to the restaurant or maybe he didn't find soldiers or police and so attacked the closest target."
Israeli military raids on two refugee camps last week killed dozens of Palestinians, many of them police officers and gunmen. The incursions enraged Titi and other militants, many of whom live in refugee camps. Titi grew up in the Balata refugee camp in Nablus, one of the militia's strongholds raided last week.
"While they were attacking Balata refugee camp, our groups in Bethlehem were preparing retaliation," he said. They dispatched suicide bomber Mohammed Daragmeh, 20, to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, where he killed nine Israelis, including a 1-year-old and several other children.
"We chose this target because the extremist Jews are feeding the settlement projects in our land," he said. "They always attack us and raise their voices against our rights."
Some of Titi's rage comes from his childhood. He recalls the first time he was arrested for hurling stones and a homemade fire bomb at an Israeli jeep in Balata. He was 13, and would spend seven years in prison.
"I was a little child. They tortured me. They put me in muddy, cold water in winter," he said.
When Israelis and Palestinians again went to battle in September, 2000, Titi helped found the Al Aqsa Brigades, which takes its name from a mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City. During the first months of the fighting, the groups of fighters evolved into an organized militia, with dozens of hardcore recruits and thousands of other supporters in major West Bank towns and cities, he said.
In the Balata refugee camp raid last week, intended to root out members of Al Aqsa Brigades, Israeli troops entered his home, detaining and questioning his father for several hours. The soldiers also shot at portraits of his dead colleagues that hung on the walls.
"I believe that they have put me on the assassination list," he said of the Israelis. "So, sooner or later they are going to assassinate me, so I'll kill them, as many as I can."