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Hit hard in West Bank, Hamas vows comeback

Security force members loyal to Fatah keep an eye on activity along a street in Ramallah on Tuesday. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' forces have kept a tight grip on the West Bank after Hamas routed Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip.
Security force members loyal to Fatah keep an eye on activity along a street in Ramallah on Tuesday. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' forces have kept a tight grip on the West Bank after Hamas routed Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip.Muhammed Muheisen / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hamas leaders in the West Bank have been driven underground by a Fatah campaign of kidnappings and arrests, but the Islamic militants warn they’ll eventually come out of hiding to try to destabilize the rule of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with car bombings and assassinations.

Hamas is too weak now for a frontal assault on Fatah in the West Bank, but Iranian funding for Hamas, Abbas’ political weakness and Fatah infighting could one day change the balance, Fatah leaders, Hamas militants and Israeli analysts say.

Security forces allied with Abbas say they’re determined to snuff out Hamas in the West Bank. The president has declared the Hamas militias illegal, and his security chiefs said they wouldn’t just go after Hamas’ weapons, but also its money.

“The only way to deal with Hamas ... is by dismantling every single military cell in the West Bank, and that’s what the security apparatus is doing now,” said Kamal Abu Rob, a Fatah lawmaker.

The best insurance against a Hamas takeover might come from elsewhere: Israel’s relentless pursuit of Hamas has kept the militants on the defensive and the resumption of foreign aid to the West Bank, after a 15-month boycott, could swing public opinion strongly in Abbas’ favor.

Hamas leaders are keeping their heads down. In the past week, some 120 Hamas activists have been arrested by security forces or kidnapped by a violent Fatah offshoot.

Lawmakers a target
Gunmen have stormed the parliament building in Ramallah, burned offices of Hamas lawmakers in Nablus and warned some government employees with Hamas ties not to return to work. One Hamas member has been killed and another seriously wounded. Several others have been shot in the legs.

Khouloud al-Masri, a Hamas member of the Nablus municipal council, was forced from her office Tuesday. She said Fatah gunmen told her she wouldn’t be able to return the next day. Al-Masri said her husband is in hiding and their five children are with grandparents.

In response, Hamas has made threats. “They (Fatah leaders) think Hamas is weak in the West Bank, just as they thought Hamas was in Gaza,” said Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas hard-liner in Gaza. “The West Bank may surprise the world with what they don’t expect, and it’s best for them not to fall into this trap.”

Hamas’ military strength in the West Bank is difficult to assess. Some Israeli analysts say only a few dozen gunmen escaped arrest by Israel.

Planning a comeback?
But a top Palestinian security official in Ramallah said Hamas has recruited hundreds who are organized in sleeper cells, outfitted with guns and uniforms, and ready to move. Hamas, which carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel in recent years, can also draw on explosives experts and runs secret bomb labs, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with the rules of his security service.

A senior Hamas militant leader said the group has recruited about 4,000 gunmen in Nablus and Hebron, and has thousands of weapons. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is wanted by Israel.

He said that when the signal comes to act, Hamas would carry out car bombs and try to assassinate Fatah leaders to destabilize the West Bank. On Tuesday, civilian cars were banned from security headquarters in the territory amid concerns about car bombs.

Financial incentives
Money might help tilt the balance.

Fatah’s former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan alleged that Iran funded Hamas’ onslaught on Gaza with some $250 million. “If we are not careful, it (the Iranian-directed campaign) will move to the West Bank,” he told Palestine TV.

And Hillel Frisch, an Israeli analyst, said Iranian money could buy off Fatah security officers who haven’t been fully paid for months. He also noted that militants have moved from one group to the other in the past, and that money could be a strong incentive.

With the foreign aid embargo lifted, Abbas expects full Western support for his government. The resumption of aid will allow him to pay his 27,000 security forces in the West Bank and ensure their loyalty.

Palestinians are following the power struggle with trepidation. “I hope that this new government will control security and control the street,” said Medhat Hanans, 45, a shopkeeper in Ramallah. “The foreign aid that we will receive will help the government a lot.”

The Ramallah security chief said he has orders to block money to Hamas, some of which he says is funneled through West Bank businesses. He said Hamas’ social institutions, such as welfare organizations, will also to be targeted.

Infighting a factor
Fatah’s greatest weakness — its petty internal rivalries — may yet sabotage its stand against Hamas. Behind the scenes, there’s angry finger-pointing over the loss of Gaza, but Fatah activists are under orders not to go public.

Kadoura Fares, a Fatah leader in Ramallah, said the shock of recent days might finally shake up the movement, which failed to make reforms even after its election defeat to Hamas in 2006.

“Fatah activists have now realized the importance of defending their movement and building it, and the necessity of halting the internal battles,” he said. “For the first time, you find a kind of harmony in the movement, because it is threatened by Hamas, and our national project (of a state) is threatened too.”