- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Leaders of the powerful Fatah faction have agreed on newly elected PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to be their only candidate for Palestinian president, a member of the faction’s central committee said yesterday.

But violent opposition to the moderate leader erupted in Gaza City yesterday when masked men engaged in a gunfight with Mr. Abbas’ bodyguards during a wake for the deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, killing two.

Mr. Abbas was hustled into a corner of the mourning tent as bodyguards swarmed over him to protect him during the gunfight.

Earlier, former Arafat national security adviser Mohammed Dahlan had told The Washington Times: “Already, the Fatah leadership has elected Abu Mazen to be their candidate in the next election,” referring to Mr. Abbas by his nickname.

“He’s one of the historical leaders [of the Palestinian movement], is open-minded, and believes strongly in the peace process,” Mr. Dahlan said.

“But it’s not a final decision,” he added, in an apparent reference to the need for the far larger revolutionary council of Fatah, meeting in the next few days, to confirm the nomination.

Mr. Dahlan spoke after sitting on a white chair for hours in a line of prominent officials who shook hands with uniformed and civilian mourners at an outdoor wake for the fallen leader.

He ruled out any challenge coming either from himself or from the popular Marwan Barghouti, the former West Bank Fatah leader whose activist wife said he is considering running for president from his Israeli prison cell. A Jerusalem court sentenced him this year to five life sentences for terrorist murders.

Describing the imprisoned leader as a close friend, Mr. Dahlan argued that Fatah institutions had to select one candidate for leader, rather than let individuals put themselves forward. “We wanted one candidate, and we now have one,” he said.

Shortly after the entry of Mr. Abbas, who had just arrived from Ramallah, gunmen burst into the public wake. Gunfire crackled across the crowded tent, and in minutes the gunmen had killed two of Mr. Arafat’s elite security unit, now assigned to protecting Mr. Abbas.

Mourners scrambled to get out of the way while ambulances sped in to evacuate a handful of wounded.

Mr. Abbas was rapidly pulled to safety, and his and Mr. Dahlan’s black cars sped away. The gunmen, believed to have numbered about 30, had accused the men of corruption or of trying to rein in the militants’ armed attacks on Israel, eyewitnesses reported.

At least two suspects were soon forced to the ground and taken away, as the scattered white plastic chairs were put back and shocked mourners sat down again alongside a portrait of the dead Palestinian leader.

“Respect our brother Abu Amar’s blood and soul,” a bearded Fatah official pleaded on the wake’s loudspeaker system. “Stop, until we can calm this down.”

For hours afterwards, cars and pickup trucks with gun-toting uniformed and plainclothes young men roamed through the busy evening streets of Gaza City, where people were out celebrating the three days of Eid, marking the ending of the Ramadan fast.

The violence was an ominous but as yet isolated incident in an otherwise highly dignified five days that have seen an apparently flawless set of maneuvers to remodel the power structure.

But pressure on the new emerging leadership is also being exerted by a militant group within the ranks of Fatah itself.

Around 500 masked fighters, brandishing an array of rocket launchers and other weaponry, had marched into the wake earlier in the day. They displayed a rocket that they have named “Yasser-1” — which they claim can reach the nearest large Israeli city, Ashkelon, if fired from within the Gaza Strip.

The gunmen, who wore the Fatah emblem of two crossed guns on their chest, were making the political point that the Palestinian movement still retains the option of violent resistance and that they would oppose concessions to Israel.

On Thursday, Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said they fired 20 mortar rounds at Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. There were no reports of casualties.

“The bombardment is in retaliation to the cowardly crime committed by the enemy against our leader and the symbol of our Arab and Islamic nation, Yasser Arafat,” Fatah said in a statement quoted by Middle East Newsline.

Armed resistance has abated dramatically in the last year, with Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades almost quiet, and the fighting force of the Islamic hard-line movement Hamas, the Izzedin Al Qassam Brigades, decimated by Israeli assassinations.

The use of violence alongside or instead of negotiations — though a tactic employed by Mr. Arafat at times — has been strongly criticized in recent months by Mr. Abbas.

But Fatah’s top official in Gaza, Ahmed Hilles, refused to rule out more such operations against Israel.

He said that the “violence by the Palestinians was just a retaliation against the Israelis.”

“Is it justified [for Israelis] to kill kids, destroy houses and uproot trees?

“So you have to look at it from both sides,” Mr. Hilles told The Washington Times.

Mr. Dahlan called on Israel to create the conditions that would allow a free election in the Palestinian territories within the next two months.

“I hope the Israelis will stay far away from us and leave us to run an election,” he said.

The balloting would go ahead after the Palestinians “get full assurances from the international community to allow us to make it free for the whole Palestinian people, including [those in] East Jerusalem.”

Israel has barred most residents in East Jerusalem from registering to vote.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signaled flexibility on the matter yesterday, telling his Cabinet he would not rule out the possibility of allowing East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote, the Associated Press reported meeting participants as saying. No decisions were made.

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