Thursday, June 28, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The threat of civil war between competing Palestinian factions in the West Bank yesterday overshadowed the appointment of Tony Blair as the top international envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Mr. Blair was named special envoy at a meeting of the peace Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — as he stepped down as Britain’s prime minister.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads the secular Fatah party, welcomed Mr. Blair’s appointment while Hamas officials dismissed the former British leader as a supporter of Israel.

The Palestinian reaction illustrated the violent divisions that have prompted supporters of Mr. Abbas’ government to prepare for a battle over the West Bank following Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip earlier this month.

Mr. Blair’s nomination as special envoy was met with skepticism in much of the Arab world, where he is widely viewed as tilting toward the United States and Israel in the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict and in the Middle East generally.

“Many people say he is not a neutral peace broker,” said an editor of a leading Arab newspaper in Britain.

Meanwhile, Fayez Tiwari, a commander in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant offshoot of Fatah, said his outfit had intercepted a directive from Hamas’ military wing in the Gaza Strip “to kill all the members of the Aqsa Brigades in the West Bank.”

“The only people capable of standing against Hamas in the West Bank are the Aqsa Brigades,” Mr. Tiwari said by telephone from the West Bank city of Nablus.

“We, the fighters, are strong but we have no leadership. We’ve already seen what happened in Gaza,” he said.

Both groups claimed responsibility for scores of suicide bombings in Israel at the height of the Palestinian uprising.

Mr. Abbas on Tuesday issued a decree outlawing armed militias — a move aimed at both Hamas and Fatah vigilantes.

Hamas forces succeeded in overrunning Gaza in six days, despite an overwhelming numerical advantage for the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority security forces in the coastal strip.

With their commanders outside of the Gaza Strip, most of the Palestinian Authority security forces stayed out of the fight.

As they retreated from Gaza, disgruntled members of Fatah in the West Bank retaliated by burning and vandalizing Islamic targets in the West Bank.

Gaza-based Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar pledged to retaliate for those attacks, saying the Islamists would fight Fatah in the same way it fights Israel, the New York Times reported.

The West Bank is considered more difficult for Hamas to capture, mainly because the Israeli army is likely to stamp out any military offensive by the Islamic militants.

The large number of villages and the West Bank’s hilly topography would also complicate such an offensive.

The Palestinian press reported that Mr. Abbas favors deploying a Jordanian-trained Palestinian security force known as the Badr Brigade in an effort to bolster law and order in the West Bank.

“The Badr Brigade is going to strengthen the Palestinian Authority against Hamas,” said Muqbal Barghouti, the younger brother of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. “It gives moral support.”

Releasing Marwan Barghouti, a leader considered to have good ties with the Palestinian rank and file, is thought to be an option being considered by Israel to bolster Mr. Abbas.

A Palestinian public opinion poll last week from the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that 58 percent of Palestinians favored Marwan Barghouti for president.

The younger Mr. Barghouti argued that his brother is the only one capable of leading the reforms necessary to refurbish Fatah as a counter to Hamas’ ascendancy.

“The credibility people had in Fatah has disappeared completely,” he said. “It needs a savior. Someone has to re-establish its credibility.”

At least one member of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet, former Shin Bet security service deputy chief Gideon Ezra, is also calling for Marwan Barghouti’s release.

But Israeli analysts caution that the government will be hard-pressed to pardon a militant sentenced in an Israeli civilian court to consecutive life terms for ordering attacks against the Jewish state.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Blair yesterday accepted his new role with his trademark optimism, saying one of the first goals is to help strengthen Mr. Abbas’ government.

The task “will require a huge intensity of focus and work,” Mr. Blair told Britain’s Parliament.

“The absolute priority is to try to give effect to what is now the consensus across the international community — that the only way of bringing stability and peace to the Middle East is a two-state solution,” he said.

Mr. Blair, 54, replaces former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who resigned in April of last year in frustration at the difficulty of making progress on a problem that has defied diplomacy for nearly 60 years.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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