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Unfolding in the West Bank Today | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Jerusalem, Asharq Al-Awsat- It could only have happened in a place where security and order were absent on every level. Moreover, it had to be a place that does not heed any authority, even if it were the Palestinian Authority, which many among its leadership have described as illusory under the ongoing Israeli occupation.

This was when Abu Jabal, the local official for Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which is the armed wing of Fatah in Nablus, was a correspondent for Channel 2 news on Israeli television and who led a tour of the city to reveal the ‘cleansing’ operations that were executed by Hamas, which included abductions, arrests and the burning down of institutions. This also included the seizure of some institutions, such as the municipal council in Nablus, the biggest city in the West Bank, and the expulsion of nominated Hamas members and the appointment of others in their place from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militia.

Prior to that, Nablus had witnessed what was considered the worst ‘reaction’ over the events unfolding in Gaza after one of the Hamas activists was executed after being abducted; the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claimed responsibility for it.

But these reactions, or what senior Fatah figure Abu Ali Shaheen has called ‘the venting of anger’ in Nablus, have not been limited to the city but rather spread through the West Bank manifesting as dozens of operations including arrests, abductions and the burning down of houses belonging to cadres of the Hamas movement. Those attacked include Dr. Abdel Aziz Duwaik, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, while a number of Hamas members’ houses, who are detained in Israeli prisons, were raided, including that of Jamal al Tawil, the mayor of al Beira municipality and Hassan Yousef, among others.

But it seems that the flagrant acts committed by Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades are awkward for Mahmoud Abbas, as they provide the opportunity for Hamas to hurl the same accusations at Fatah that Fatah had long since been aiming at Hamas. If Hamas was a ‘revolutionary group’ and a ‘criminal gang’, as the media affiliated to Abbas likes to call it – then what of these unregulated groups that are affiliated to Abbas, as the leader of Fatah, who are committing the same crimes as Hamas in Gaza?

This has led the Palestinians to draw comparisons between the two groups in Gaza, furthermore attacking Abu Mazen in a televised speech over the appearance of the phenomenon of the masked men attributed to the Fatah forces. These masked men from the national security forces have been deployed to stand by military roadblocks.

Such actions indicate that Abu Mazen has lost the first round against Hamas in his battle in the West Bank to the extent that some circles in the West Bank, including the Christian circles, have told Asharq Al-Awsat that they hope Hamas can do to the West Bank what it did to Gaza so as to put an end to this ongoing slip in security. ‘Maariv’, the Israeli newspaper, ran an article aptly entitled: “Two Governments and one Security Slip”.

But Abu Mazen, over anyone else, knows that this is not the way to avoid repeating the same errors committed by Hamas. He continued to stress the importance of enforcing the rules and adhering to them, however no definitive steps were taken in that direction – even if only nominal. However, this changed on 26 June, 2007, when Abu Mazen issued a decree to disband all militias and to confiscate all arms, including those of Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, but many observers were quick to say that this was bound to remain words rather than action.

The Palestinian Authority has changed its policies following the ‘venting of anger’ operations in confronting Hamas and has given its movement a new ‘legal’ form so that it launched large-scale arrests and changed the manner in which it was dealing with the matter. The commanders of the security services held interviews with the media so as to include them in the picture of the events unfolding saying that the arrests of various Hamas members were executed in accordance with the law, and that the intention was to protect them from the rampage of the armed Fatah group, while others were arrested for being affiliated to the armed Hamas wing.

The authority was aware of the importance of confronting Hamas on the moral and media fronts; the Palestinian Interior Ministry announced that 24 members of Hamas, among them some from the leadership, have surrendered themselves to the Palestinian security forces. The government has announced that following investigations, most of them were released, “after committing to abiding to Palestinian law and not getting involved in any suspicious plans associated with Hamas in the West Bank.”

The Palestinian Preventive Security Service (PPSS) office in the city of Qalqilya, north of the West Bank announced that, “It is likely that ‘items’ were intended for use in the executive authority that was established by the former Interior Minister Said Siyam in Gaza. President Mahmoud Abbas has declared their use illegitimate and has considered it to be discordant with the law.” Among the items presented were: swords and axes, military uniforms and masks, in addition to data, flags and banners for the Hamas movement and the Al Aqsa Brigades.

In the governorate of Jenin, journalists were allowed to interview several detained Hamas members who said that they were being subjected to torture, confirming their refusal to shift the events from Gaza to the West Bank. They also denied the statements attributed to Mahmoud al Zahar, of the Hamas leadership, who had threatened to confront the Palestinian Authority and security forces in the West Bank with the use of bombs. The detainees described it as an ‘unpardonable crime’ and maintained that the statements do not express the opinion of any free individual seeking the interest of his nation.”

These ‘legal’ changes have reassured many in the Fatah leadership, such as Abu Ali Shaheen, who has stated that these acts of ‘venting anger’ have reflected badly on Fatah and on the authority. “They attacked the houses of our symbols, such as Yasser Arafat, Abu Jihad and Abu Mazen, but there is also the incident of burning down Dr. Duwaik’s house, which the authority pays rent for and was the one to build it in full – what is happening? We have to think rationally,” he said, addressing his words to the cadres of the Fatah movement.

He added, “All that has transpired in the West Bank thus far is letting off steam, not political resolution. Everyone must bow down to the law in the West Bank so that we can set a strong example for those who want to see a difference between our actions in Gaza as opposed to those of Hamas.”

Senior Hamas figure, Abu Ali Shaheen, believes that a distinction must be made between Hamas members in the West Bank and those in Gaza. He sees that the movement in the West Bank is different and that Hamas does not want to repeat what it did in Gaza in the West Bank. And even if it had wanted to do that, Israel would not object because Hamas believes in the temporary borders that Israel has currently proposed. He stated that Hamas’ plan was to transform Gaza into an Islamic emirate and that it would not object to the West Bank’s return to Jordan and that the members of Hamas in the West Bank remain affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan.

Former Information Minister [in the former National Unity government], Dr. Mustafa al Barghouti, stressed the importance of what he called ‘devoting a culture’ that respects the law and not permitting the infringement of the lives of citizens and their rights and possessions and homes, in the manner that became of Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and Abdul Aziz Duwaik’s houses.

Meanwhile, Al Aqsa Brigades groups continued to target people and locations linked to Hamas. It has been noted that Hamas’ leadership in the West Bank has adopted a different tactic in confronting these attacks by not retaliating and as such, has emerged as wisely avoiding becoming embroiled in the conflict with the authority or the Al Aqsa Brigades.

This stance was publicly announced and was adopted by Hamas in Gaza by the founder of [Izz ad-Din] Al Qassam Brigades, Saleh al Aruri, who was released from an Israeli prison three months ago after 15 years of imprisonment.

Al Aruri expressed his rejection of settling political matters using a military solution, hinting at his disapproval of the events in Gaza, moreover reiterating his call for dialogue and using it as a means to resolve the issues and conflicts.

Only a few hours had elapsed after this announcement before the occupation forces surrounded his house and arrested him again.

Commenting on the re-arrest of al Aruri, Burhan Jirar, who is among the Fatah leadership said that the occupation would not allow for any “rational” voices in Hamas to be expressed or of any roles to be fulfilled. He added that the occupation wanted to exacerbate the situation, furthermore calling for this to be taken as an example and bring about an awareness of the “real enemy”.

However the truth is that these “reasonable” and “balanced” voices among Hamas members in the West Bank did nothing to assuage the fear and trepidation that has afflicted the members and cadres of Fatah who, to the present day, live under the fear that the military coup in Gaza could be re-enacted in the West Bank.

Until recently, it was believed that the West Bank’s Al Qassam Brigades was weak to a large extent after it had been brutally struck by Israel during the Intifada, and which led to the death of most of its leaders and the arrest of other leaders such as Ibrahim Hamed, Jamal Abu al Hija, Nael and Abdullah al Barghouti, among others. However today, sources in Fatah are refuting this fact.

According to Jamal Abu al Rab, the deputy in Fatah’s Legislative Council, who was among the leadership in the Al Aqsa Brigades indicated that the Al Qassam Brigades is heavily armed in the West Bank, which has led to an absurd rise in prices in the black market for arms so that the cost of an M16 rifle has soared from 20,000 Shekels to 70,000 Shekels [US $16,462]. Abu al Rab called for striking the armed wing of Hamas with an iron hand and adopting a zero tolerance approach so that what happened in Gaza will not be repeated in the West Bank.

Sources close to Fatah have estimated that Hamas spent millions of dollars rearming itself in West Bank and that it has allegedly spent US $5 million on weapons in Bethlehem alone, however it was difficult for Asharq Al-Awsat to confirm this last fact. According to these same sources, after winning the elections Hamas has been calmly and carefully purchasing arms and that after the recent attacks and abductions executed by Hamas in the West Bank there has been a collective call among the Hamas movement demanding armament.

The source that supplies the weapons to Palestinian elements in the West Bank is Israel. The weapons are transferred via complex channels, through Israeli-Palestinian networks; however it is believed that the Israeli security services are not too far from the black market by virtue of the growing volume of arms in the West Bank.

Azzam al Ahmed, the head of the Fatah parliamentary bloc said that Shaul Mofaz, the former Israeli Defense Minister’s response to the request to arm the forces affiliated to the Palestinian Authority was let them arm themselves through the black market as do Al Qassam Brigades.

Today, according to Tawfik Tirawi, head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service in the West Bank, Hamas is actively storing weapons in the West Bank, “We will not allow anyone to store any weapons that can be used in the Palestinian arena. Claims that they are weapons for the resistance are untrue and we will absolutely forbid that,” he said.

In the midst of such a turbulent atmosphere, Abu Mazen issued a decree on June 26, 2007, prohibiting, “all armed militias and military- or unregulated military- formations whatever their affiliations,” from partaking in any activities publicly or in secret, furthermore placing anyone that assists or provides services to be held under penal and administrative accountability. The presidential decree issued under the emergency government demands the abolition of the phenomenon of all armed groups, implementing the arms embargo law confiscating all weapons, ammunition and all unlicensed means of combat and all materials that pose a threat to the general order.

Less than a few hours had elapsed after this decree before the sound of intense gunshots could be heard rattling through Ramallah, which terrorized the residents who ran out of their homes to see what was happening. They discovered that the shots had been fired by some militia members who had been publicly declared as disarmed and who were firing their guns in celebration of the aforesaid marriage.

This was a symbolic indication of the difficulty, and perhaps even impossibility, of implementing Abbas’s decree, which Hamas ‘absolutely rejected’ considering that it was targeting what it described as the arms for resistance.

In an official decree issued last Wednesday, Hamas declared, “the armed wings that fought against the occupation did not wait for a decree to do so and no one has the right to determine the fate of the resistance factions, or to demand their dissolution in light of the looming presence of the Zionist occupation on our Palestinian land.” Hamas took advantage of the opportunity to demand that Abbas put an end to “the pursuit, arrest and torture of the mujahideen of the Hamas movement who are imprisoned in the Palestinian Authority jails and at the hands of its [security] services.”

Hamas spared no time in publicly announcing, as it does every day in detail, that “the militias of Abbas are attacking the members and supporters of Hamas in the West Bank,” furthermore publishing the details of its claims. However unlike Hamas and the Jihadi movements that declared their rejection of Abbas’s decree, Zakaria al Zubaidi, the Al Aqsa Brigades commander from the Jenin refugee camp, publicly welcomed the decree, as did politician and analyst Samih Shabib who called it “a step in the right direction.”

For his part, Riad al Malki, the spokesman for the emergency government and the Minister of Justice and Information responded to Ismail Haniyeh’s statements by saying, “The situation in the West Bank is not as critical as Hamas claim it to be if we were to compare the pillaging, burning, destruction and killing that took place in Gaza that has reached the extent of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as some human rights organizations and institutions monitoring the rights of citizen stated.”

Al Malki who claims himself as neither siding with Hamas nor Fatah said, “The situation in the West Bank is being dealt with utmost gravity. There are some anomalies resulting from security problems that are entrenched as a result of the years of the occupation and the collapse of the authority’s security apparatus. The present government is determined to eradicate these anomalies and resolve the situation as soon as possible to stop the violations taking place under the various alleged names at the expense of the rights of the citizens, regardless of the stated political affiliations. As such, within this framework, the government strongly denounces and condemns the actions and practices of some of these armed groups operating outside of the law and violating citizens, burning houses, terrorizing residents, resorting to blackmail and other non-legal methods.”

Al Malki announced his government’s commitment to “pursue this matter whatever the cost of time and effort so that it may put an end to it and arrest the culprits and put them on trial with the intention of spreading security throughout the land and so that the citizens could regain stability and safety, restoring legitimacy in Gaza and confidence amongst the multiple factions in the Palestinian arena internally.”

He added, “In a few days we will be able to establish security and order in the West Bank, gradually making it final in hopes that Hamas would not make any voluntary disruptive advances to destabilize the security and put the government in an awkward situation, as Dr. [Mahmoud] al Zahhar said in his last interview in the German ‘Der Spiegel’ when he threatened bombing the West Bank.”

But still, the questions remain: Will the decree issued by Abbas posit a solution? Will it be implemented in the way Abbas intended? And what is the authority with the power to execute the decree?

These questions that Palestinian officials avoid answering exist alongside the reality of the oppressive occupation in the West Bank and the need for Fatah to get its house in order by eliminating the cracks caused by the internal rifts, in addition to the dozens of heads within the movement that operate individually.

A neutral observer described the situation to Asharq Al-Awsat by saying, “We are currently encountering a situation in which an organized movement like Hamas is confronting an authority in which even its officials do not believe in their political project. The course of events does not indicate that Fatah has learned any lessons. The proof is that the same leaders who were responsible for the negative image of the movement in the minds of the people are being brought into the media front to defend the movement.”

He added, “If Fatah wants to avoid a new surprise in the West Bank it should first get rid of its corrupt leaders, open dialogue with Hamas without delay, or else it would not come as a surprise if Hamas do to the West Bank what it did in Gaza. In my opinion, it will be capable of doing that in two or three years as it continues its silent armament, while Fatah continues to lose what it has left of supporters.”

While serious doubts relate to Abbas’s ability to enforce his decree regarding the militias and their disarmament, it is confirmed without a doubt that his government is capable of implementing its decision to change the official holiday from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday, effective of July 1st – which indicates the level of decisions that Abbas’s government is capable of applying.