- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

JENIN, West Bank — The 28-year-old commander of Palestinian militants in Jenin who torched a Palestinian government building in the West Bank city last month declared his loyalty to Yasser Arafat yesterday and blamed the United States, Britain and Israel for internal unrest in Palestinian ranks.

“Just as they have been doing in Iraq, the American and British governments are making the problems inside the Palestinian government,” Zakaria Zbeidi told The Washington Times in a clandestine interview on a rooftop overlooking Jenin.

He said the Israelis, with American backing, successfully had enticed the Palestinian intelligence service to reveal names of anti-Israeli fighters before or after they took action.

“The intelligence was serving Israel by giving the names of our fighters to them before or after we launched actions,” he said.

This had led to numerous arrests and killings of his men and other resistance fighters, he said.

Declaring that he was in command, Mr. Zbeidi insisted that his group’s virtual takeover of Jenin was not a coup against Mr. Arafat.

He said that before torching government building, he took down pictures of the Palestinian leader because he didn’t want them damaged. He added that he then paraded the photos through Jenin.

“All the true members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade support Mr. Arafat,” he said, as he and three of his group brandished U.S.-made M16 rifles, after arriving for the rendezvous in a sport utility vehicle.

Earlier reports had said the young militants were accusing Mr. Arafat of rampant corruption. But Mr. Zbeidi declined to blame Mr. Arafat for the current infighting among Palestinians.

Nor did he accuse senior members of the authority of stashing away many millions of dollars in aid money from the European Union and Arab countries, an accusation made by several disgruntled members of the Palestinian Legislative Assembly.

The brigade is a militant wing of the dominant Fatah movement headed by Mr. Arafat.

“Anyone who does not back Mr. Arafat is not truly a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade,” Mr. Zbeidi said.

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip also attacked security offices last month in an action that was widely seen as a move against Mr. Arafat and in favor of one of his rivals, Mohammed Dahlan.

Young Palestinian militants are widely seen to be staking a claim to leadership if and when Mr Arafat’s power declines.

But Mr. Zbeidi warned the Israelis and their American backers not to expect a better deal from Mr. Arafat’s successors.

“If the Israelis kill Arafat or he dies, the Israelis will find no one to make peace with them. There will be a very bad situation not only here but all over the Arab world. It will be like Fallujah,” he said, referring to the city west of Baghdad that has become a hotbed of Iraqi insurgency.

“It is a battle against time — time is not important for us but it’s essential for the Israelis,” Mr. Zbeidi said.

Suicide bombers and other fighters from the brigade have had very little success lately in penetrating into Israeli territory. But Mr. Zbeidi said his men were responsible for a recent remotely detonated explosion in Tel Aviv that killed a female soldier.

He insisted that his men still could pose a serious threat but had changed tactics.

“We are making and firing Qassam rockets in Gaza, and we will make the same in Jenin. Whatever we have there we have here,” he said.

“The Israeli wall will not stop us getting into Israel,” he said. “We can do it, but we don’t think about this just now. … We don’t kill civilians now, only soldiers.

“But if Israel makes big trouble, we’ll kill civilians in Israel [again].”

He declined to elaborate. The interview ended as he and his gunmen descended into the city’s darkening streets.

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