Palestinian cell leader
Nasser Ishtayeh  /  AP
Ala Sanakra, left, commander of an Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade cell, said his men attacked an Israeli car south of Nablus this week in retaliation for an Israeli army raid.
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updated 2/9/2005 6:44:52 PM ET 2005-02-09T23:44:52

Hezbollah is emerging as the biggest threat to a fragile Israeli-Palestinian truce, with Lebanese guerrillas offering West Bank gunmen thousands of dollars to step up attacks on Israelis, the gunmen and Palestinian security officials said Wednesday.

Iranian-funded guerrillas, who have hundreds of West Bank gunmen on their payroll, have stepped up pressure on them in recent weeks, the security officials said.

A retired militant told The Associated Press that a Hezbollah recruiter called him just a day before this week’s summit in Egypt, told him that the cease-fire would not last and offered a generous payment if he returned to violence. A squad of five or six militants typically receives $5,000 to $8,000 a month from Hezbollah for expenses, including bullets, weapons, cellular telephone calling cards and spending money.

Abbas steers clear, for now
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose political survival depends on making the cease-fire stick, is trying to avoid confrontation with Hezbollah for the moment.

He has sent an envoy, former Palestinian Cabinet minister Abdel Fattah Hemayel, to Lebanon to try to urge Hezbollah to step back. Hemayel is not meeting Hezbollah directly, but he is delivering his message through top officials of Abbas’ Fatah movement who live in exile in Lebanon and have ties to Hezbollah.

Majed Farraj, a top official in the Palestinian Interior Ministry, said, “There are foreign parties who are trying to create bases in Palestine,” but he did not refer to Hezbollah directly.

“This has a political dimension, and the Palestinian Authority will not allow it,” Farraj said. “Fatah leaders here and abroad are exerting efforts to deal with this.”

Palestinian officials have also expressed concern in recent meetings with U.S. and European diplomats about Hezbollah’s destabilizing influence, participants said.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Afif denied that the group was trying to disrupt the truce, which was declared Tuesday. “These accusations are part of an American-Israeli campaign against Hezbollah,” he said.

Iran accused of sabotaging Abbas
Hezbollah has been recruiting Palestinian militants since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, primarily targeting members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which is affiliated with Fatah. They are also getting involved in smuggling weapons to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and in training operatives from the Islamic militant group Hamas.

After helping stoke the uprising for more than four years, Iran now hopes to disrupt the cease-fire and bring down Abbas, said Joseph Alpher, co-editor of an Israeli-Palestinian political analysis magazine. “Iran is ... the only Muslim state that refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist,” he said. “You can’t explain it by realpolitik. It’s about ideology.”

After Abbas’ election victory Jan. 9, Iran issued an invitation. Abbas has not turned Tehran down, but he appears in no rush to set a date for a trip that could undercut his growing ties with the West.

Fifty-one squads of gunmen in the West Bank, most of them affiliated with Al Aqsa, are directly funded by Hezbollah, a senior Israeli security official said on condition of anonymity.

Most of the squads operate in Nablus and nearby Jenin, the main reason those two areas are the last to be handed over to Palestinian security control. Five other towns, where Hezbollah’s influence is far weaker, will return to Palestinian control over the next three weeks as part of an agreement Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reached at this week’s summit.

Militants recruited by telephone
The two leaders declared an end to hostilities after their meeting. Abbas made the pledge after receiving promises from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and most Al Aqsa cells that they would halt attacks. The Hezbollah-funded Al Aqsa squads are now the only holdouts against a cease-fire.

Just hours after the summit ended, Al Aqsa members shot at an Israeli car south of Nablus, causing no injuries but sending a clear message that they would not abide by the cease-fire.

Ala Sanakra, who commands an Al Aqsa cell in the Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus, said his men attacked the car in retaliation for an army arrest raid in the camp. Sanakra refused to say whether he was getting money from Hezbollah.

A former militant in the West Bank city of Ramallah said a Hezbollah recruiter called him Monday, a day before the summit, and urged him to resume attacks.

The recruiter said that the cease-fire would not last long and that the Palestinians should not settle for Israel’s pullout from West Bank towns after such a long and bloody struggle. He “promised to cover all my expenses, buying bullets and weapons,” said the 28-year-old Palestinian, who dropped out of Al Aqsa 18 months ago and declined Hezbollah’s offer.

Palestinian forces allegedly recruited, too
Hezbollah is also trying to recruit members of the Palestinian security forces as allies, the former Al Aqsa member said.

Israeli security officials, who have resumed cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts in recent weeks, said they were concerned about possible leaks. They said they believed some Palestinian officers were on Hezbollah’s payroll and might pass on information they were getting from the Israelis.

Israel prefers to take direct action when possible. West Bank militants have named two of their contacts in Hezbollah as Ghaleb Awali and Ali Hussein Saleh, both of whom were killed in car bomb attacks that Hezbollah has attributed to Israel. Saleh, who worked as a security guard at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, died in August 2003. Awali, a veteran Hezbollah commander, was blown up in July 2004.

Hezbollah operatives deal directly with individual groups of Al Aqsa gunmen; Al Aqsa is not tightly organized and, unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has no central command.

Some of the money Hezbollah pays squads is transferred via Western Union, said a top Palestinian police official in charge of watching extremists.

In e-mail messages, Hezbollah asks for detailed accounts of the squads’ activities, including names of those who carried out attacks. The Palestinian official said that he was monitoring some of the e-mail traffic and that the Palestinian Monetary Authority was watching the money transfers. He said he had briefed Palestinian leaders on Hezbollah’s activities but ha not received an order to step in or make arrests.

Abbas is avoiding confrontation, in part, because he prefers to co-opt militants, not arrest them. In the case of the Hezbollah-backed squads, it would mean outbidding the Lebanese guerrillas or offering the gunmen jobs in the Palestinian Authority and a promise of Israeli amnesty.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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