- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

NABLUS, West Bank — Palestinian militants beat and briefly held the governor of the West Bank town of Jenin yesterday, raising tensions with Palestinian authorities under heavy Israeli pressure to crack down on armed groups.

The attack on Haider Irsheid by the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade came ahead of an expected meeting today between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to work on a U.S.-backed peace plan, which is stalled despite a three-week truce declared by militant groups.

Al Aqsa’s leader in Jenin, Zakariye Zubeydi, accused Mr. Irsheid of collaborating with Israel and demanded that the Palestinian Authority send a mediator to question him and put him on trial.

The militants freed Mr. Irsheid about five hours later, after a call from an unidentified official at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s office. Al Aqsa is loosely affiliated with Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement.

“For me, Arafat’s order is not up for negotiation, so I released him immediately,” Mr. Zubeydi said, adding that he would leave the responsibility for judging Mr. Irsheid to Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Zubeydi also accused Mr. Irsheid of involvement in an attempt to kill an Al Aqsa member Friday.

Al Aqsa has been blamed for several small-scale attacks on Israelis since the main Palestinian militant groups declared the temporary cease-fire June 29. Although Fatah joined the truce, leaders of some Al Aqsa branches refused to honor it.

The attack on Mr. Irsheid follows months of tensions between militants and the governor, who, Jenin residents say, has worked well with Israeli authorities.

Eyewitnesses said gunmen pulled Mr. Irsheid, 50, from his van and beat him with their fists and gun butts before bundling him into another vehicle and driving off toward the city’s refugee camp. He had bruises on his face and neck, witnesses said.

There is practically no Palestinian police presence in Jenin nor the adjacent refugee camp, a militant stronghold. Israel has effectively controlled Jenin and most other West Bank towns for more than a year as part of efforts to end suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis. But the Israelis do not maintain a constant presence in the town nor the camp, keeping troops just outside.

The release illustrated the authority Mr. Arafat wields despite a power-sharing agreement with Mr. Abbas. The two have wrangled about how to proceed in negotiations with Israel, and Mr. Arafat has worked to limit Mr. Abbas’ influence.

Israel refuses to deal with Mr. Arafat, blaming him for the violence of the past three years but has worked openly with Mr. Abbas. In addition to the expected meeting with Mr. Sharon, Mr. Abbas will travel to Washington for a meeting with President Bush on July 25. Mr. Sharon will meet with Mr. Bush on July 29.

The kidnapping comes as Israel is demanding that Palestinian authorities disarm militant groups responsible for suicide bombings and shootings that have killed hundreds of Israelis in 33 months of violence. Palestinians fear that could spark civil war and have said they would try to persuade the militants to disarm.

Before Mr. Irsheid’s release, however, Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr condemned the abduction and said action would be taken.

“It will be solved, and this type of behavior will not be allowed,” he said.

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