JENIN, West Bank (AP) – The Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas deployed a new militia in the streets of the West Bank town of Jenin on Saturday, in a show of force against the militantly anti-Israel Hamas government.
The new unit, which Fatah officials said numbers 2,500 members, is the movement’s answer to a militia of 3,000 Hamas activists that the government deployed last month over Abbas’ objection. The presence of a new Fatah militia, on top of the official security branches that the movement dominates, ratchets up tensions between Fatah and Hamas that have already erupted in deadly violence and raised the specter of civil war.
Hamas spokesmen weren’t immediately available for comment.
More than 2,000 members of the new unit gathered in Jenin on Saturday morning wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with “Special Protection Unit» on the back, and a photo of the iconic Palestinian leader, the late Yasser Arafat, on the front. Some 60 to 70 were armed with assault rifles, and several dozens carried pistols.
A Fatah leader in Jenin, Ata Abu Rmeileh, said the aim of the force was to back the official Palestinian security branches.
“You are here to protect your people and the Palestinian Authority institutions,” Abu Rmeileh exhorted the force over a loudspeaker at the local high school where it gathered. “We are loyal to our people, not like those who have sold themselves to Arab and non-Arab capitals,” he said, in a thinly veiled reference to Hamas, which is supported by Syria and Iran.
The new fighters raised their arms in a salute and shouted “Fatah, Fatah.” The force then split into 23 groups that paraded throughout the streets of Jenin. The deployment of the militia on Saturday was intended to drive home the message that unless Hamas disbands its new force, then Fatah will create parallel units across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Fatah officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose policy to the press.
Fatah officials said they have information that Hamas, whose power base is in Gaza, has begun organizing a militia in the West Bank. Hamas has not confirmed this. On Saturday, Nabil Amr, a media consultant to Abbas, reiterated that the president would not travel to Gaza unless Hamas dissolved its recently deployed militia.
Hamas, ignoring a presidential veto, activated its new force in mid-May after Abbas took de facto command of all of the powerful Palestinian security branches. The unit is led by Jamal Abu Samhadana, a key player in ongoing rocket attacks on Israel and a suspect in the deadly 2003 bombing of a U.S. convoy in the Gaza Strip.
Control over security forces is a key element in the increasingly venomous power struggle between Abbas, who was elected separately last year and hopes to restart peace talks with Israel, and Hamas, whose violent ideology has provoked crippling international economic sanctions against the Palestinian government.
The sanctions have kept the new government from paying welfare allowances as well as salaries to 165,000 civil servants over the past three months, prompting outbursts of violence and protests.
About 300 protesters gathered in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Saturday to protest withheld welfare payments, some setting tires ablaze in flames of acrid smoke. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said Friday that some of the withheld payments would be released over the weekend.
Fatah deployed its new militia just hours after a senior member of Hamas’ military wing was shot in the chest in a drive-by shooting.
Hamas did not directly blame anyone for the attack on Abdel Hadi Siyam, 35, early Saturday, but officials said Palestinian security forces fired at him in the same Gaza City neighborhood two months ago.
Siyam was taken from the hospital where he was initially treated to a Hamas clinic for security reasons, a Hamas spokesman, Abu Obeidah, said. Palestinian security sources said Siyam is a cousin of Palestinian Interior Minister Said Siyam of Hamas, but Hamas officials would not confirm any relationship. In other Gaza violence, militants fired two homemade rockets at southern Israel, damaging vehicles, the Israeli army said. Israel responded with artillery fire at suspected launching sites.