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West Bank Militants Pose Test for Abbas

Supporters of the Fatah movement wave flags at the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah, West Bank. Gunmen loyal to the secular Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stormed the parliament building in search of supporters of the rival Hamas movement.
Abbas Momani
AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of the Fatah movement wave flags at the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah, West Bank. Gunmen loyal to the secular Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stormed the parliament building in search of supporters of the rival Hamas movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will get a big boost in his bitter struggle with Hamas for political legitimacy when he joins Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Jordon's King Abdullah on Monday for a summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh.

But Abbas, who has pledged to restore law and order in the West Bank, faces another important test that speaks to his ability to maintain control. After being routed from Gaza, the armed wing of Abbas' Fatah movement, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, has defied his order to desist in a campaign against Hamas in the West Bank.

In the West Bank town of Nablus, Fayez Tirawi sipped mint tea from a glass cup in a sparse office. Next to him, muscular Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade gunmen clutched American-made M-16s with 9mm handguns stuffed into the waistband of their jeans.

Al Aqsa's reason for being is to fight Israelis. But Balata Al Aqsa Brigade leader Tirawi said these days, the focus is all on Hamas. Tirawi said his gunmen are still infuriated over what he calls Hamas' murderous attacks in Gaza. In the West Bank, he and other gunmen are Fatah's insurance policy against any further Hamas advances.

"The political echelon of Fatah can say what it likes about not repeating the bloodshed here that we had in Gaza," he said. "But the decision of Fatah's fighters in the field is very strong and clear: We want to eradicate Hamas as a movement from the streets of Palestine. We want to put an end to any Hamas presence in the West Bank."

To do that, Tirawi said, the Al Aqsa is systematically disrupting the daily work of Hamas' institutions, undermining the group's financial backers, and intimidating Hamas members. In Nablus, that has meant fire-bombings, shootings, kidnappings and death threats.

Wearing a tightly wrapped head scarf and blue jeans under a head-to-toe traditional long dress, 39-year-old Houloud Al Masri kicked open the charred front door of the Al Juthour Cultural Center, the non-profit Islamist women's aid center until Fatah's Al Aqsa Brigades burned it down a few nights ago. Al Masri is a Hamas member and the elected deputy mayor of Nablus.

Burnt spools of brightly colored thread from sewing classes shared the charred floor with destroyed computers and a pile of vinyl records. Al Masri steps over the remains, visibly shaken. Her trashed cultural center used to provide vocational training and career counseling for more than 200 women.

"I'm in shock, I'm angry," she said. "This destruction is not only the destruction to a building, to resources. It's destruction of human possibilities. The women who were working in this center were the bread winners of their family."

A few weeks ago, Al Masri's Cultural Center was raided by the Israel Defense Forces. Now, Al Masri said, she is far more worried about Fatah gunmen than Israeli soldiers.

In fact, she said she cannot stay here very long. She is on the run in the city she was elected to help lead just two years ago. She sleeps at a different place most every night and worries about the safety of her five children after receiving anonymous warnings on her cell phone and death threats delivered via third parties.

"For sure there's danger on my life and my children's lives. They're always telling me - 'we have prepared something for you, don't do this or else.' All these are messages that carry dangerous threats," she said.

Relations between Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank, Al Masri said coldly, "will never be the same." The factional bloodshed in Gaza exposed what she calls the disingenuous and superficial relations during the months of supposed factional "unity" and cooperation.

Al Masri fears for the future. President Abbas, she said, simply cannot and will not control the Al Aqsa Brigades. "They have their own agenda," she said. "They are out of control."

Fawzi Tirawi, the Balata Al Aqsa Brigade leader said his men will reject any attempt by President Abbas - or anyone else - to remove them from the streets or disarm them.

"We're the best field picture for Fatah in the Palestinian streets," Tirawi said, "We're Fatah's only safety net, especially now," he said, arguing that Fatah wouldn't have lost in Gaza if only the local security forces hadn't tried to rein in the Al Aqsa Brigades.

Tirawi was defiant when asked what the militants will do if President Abbas tries to disarm them or make them part of the regular Palestinian security forces:

"We will reject immediately any call from our leadership to be removed from the streets or disarmed. On the contrary, what I'm asking our leaders [to do] is to find ways to support us and keep us healthy and strong!" he said.

While Tirawi is focused on the West Bank, he said Fatah-allied gunmen haven't given up on re-asserting control in Gaza. Hamas has shown all its cards, he said, and "we now know who they are, where they are and how they operate."

Tirawi claims secret Fatah cells are already being organized to enter Gaza and take the fight back to Hamas.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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