- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002


Rifts erupted this week between the two most important Palestinian groups, both headed by Yasser Arafat, after the Palestinian Authority accepted Israel's plan to withdraw from Bethlehem on the West Bank and areas in the Gaza Strip as part of an agreement reached Sunday night between Israeli and Palestinian security officials.

The dominant Palestinian movement Fatah is now at odds with the body that is supposed to be governing the main West Bank and Gaza cities.

An alliance also is developing between Fatah and radical religious and Marxist Palestinian movements, posing a potential challenge to the Palestinian Authority in any effort it makes to enforce the agreement.

That deal envisages a crackdown by Palestinian police against militants who continue attacking Israeli civilians, though the definition of what constitutes a civilian is open to interpretation.

PA security officials said late Monday they still hadn't received instructions from the Palestinian Authority about how to deal with rebellious Fatah gunmen and other opposition groups.

Mr. Arafat is said to be offering support to both sides. One official said he expected some policemen would refuse to arrest Palestinian activists.

A statement issued by Fatah on its letterhead was faxed from the largest West Bank city, Nablus, to Arab television stations. It ended with the usual sign-off, "Fatah Palestine," but without any senders' names.

The fax described the Palestinian Authority's deal with Israel as a "new conspiracy" and said the PA negotiators, led by Interior Minister Abdel Razzak Yahya, had deviated from the Palestinian consensus by accepting the Israeli plan.

"This agreement is aimed at ridding the Israeli government of the crisis it is facing in order to pave the way for the U.S. to launch an aggression against Iraq," the statement said.

A leaflet issued by Fatah's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade pledged to continue the fight against Israel, saying that was "the only way to deter the enemy and make it pay the price for its crimes."

Al Aqsa has carried out most of the suicide bombings and shootings attributed to the Fatah movement, which also has an official military wing, Tanzim.

Palestinian Authority officials voiced fears that tension between the PA and the hard-line groups could lead to a showdown. They believe Mr. Arafat will have a tough time persuading the hard-liners in Fatah to support the deal.

But some centrist Fatah leaders said they were prepared to give the PA some time to see if Israel was serious about implementing the agreement.

"We need to give Arafat a chance because the situation on the ground is very bad," said a Fatah official in Ramallah who asked not to be named. "We are against partial agreements, but if it's a first step toward a full withdrawal, we are with it."

Imad Falouji, a former Hamas operative who serves as communications minister of the Palestinian Authority, defended the agreement, saying that although it was not a big achievement, it meant Israel finally had come to the conclusion that it could not achieve security by military means.

Mr. Falouji, who in the past opposed similar security deals with Israel, said the Palestinian people were now in a difficult situation. "The people are suffering and the economy is completely destroyed, so the PA has to think of solutions," he told Al Jazeera television.

Whether Fatah hard-liners will seek to align themselves with hard-line Islamic and other radical groups remains to be seen.

A military alliance already is reflected by the clandestine formation of the "Committees of the Nationalist and Islamic Forces," one of which Kadoura Moussa Kadoura said he heads in the northern West Bank.

But Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a senior Hamas official, played down the likelihood of armed clashes between Hamas with or without Fatah militants and the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Rantisi said in Gaza that "the resistance will find ways to pursue the fight without clashing with the Palestinian Authority. Our rifles will remain directed against the Zionist enemy, and only against the Zionist enemy."

Previous attempts by Palestinian Authority security forces to arrest Mr. Rantisi and other Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip failed after their supporters opened fire at Palestinian policemen. Last month, the PA was unable to enforce a house-arrest order issued against Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The Islamic Jihad organization described the Palestinian Authority's Israeli withdrawal deal as a political gamble. Mohammed Hindi, a senior Islamic Jihad official in Gaza, called the agreement a "conspiracy."

"This is a new attempt to contain the Intifada and defeat our people," said Mr. Hindi. "The Israelis are searching for a way out of the crisis they are in. Our motto is, 'End the occupation first.' The occupation must first leave our homeland."

The Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the equally militant Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine each accused Mr. Arafat of caving in to Israeli and Bush administration pressure, warning that the Palestinian Authority's decision to accept the plan jeopardized Palestinian unity.

"The Israeli plan is aimed at testing the PA to see if it can put an end to the attacks," said Saleh Zeidan, a top DFLP official in Gaza. All the PLO factions in Gaza, including Fatah, have rejected the Israeli proposal, he said, adding: "This agreement is doomed to failure like the previous ones because our people are determined to continue with the Intifada until the occupation is ended."

Ismail Haniyeh, one of the Hamas leaders in Gaza, said the agreement was a "ploy aimed at ending the intifada and the resistance before our people have achieved independence and returned to the lands from which they were expelled."

He added that most Palestinian political groups opposed the deal "because it takes us back to square one," when the PA accepted the "Gaza-Jericho First" proposal in 1993. "We are anyway opposed to any form of security cooperation with the Zionist enemy."

This article was written by Khaled Abu Toameh in Jerusalem and Paul Martin in London.

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