Palestinian factional fighting may spread
NABLUS, WEST BANK
Violence between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas surged in the Gaza Strip for a second consecutive weekend, as at least 25 Palestinians died in three days of Hamas-Fatah fighting. The violence spurred Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to arrange an emergency summit in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday.
Despite the mounting casualties and failed cease-fires in Gaza, internecine strife in the West Bank has been limited and mostly nonlethal. But now the violence is threatening to spill over, as Fatah militants in cities such as Nablus embark on a series of kidnappings as a counterpunch to Hamas gains in Gaza.
"Every day they are killing somebody in Gaza," says Da'as Kanna, a Fatah militant who kidnapped and later released five Hamas men from downtown Nablus. "The Al Aqsa Brigades [Fatah's military wing] in the West Bank can't sit by and watch. We are one Fatah."
A new West Bank battle front would expose nearly twice as many Palestinians to the daily skirmishes that have kept Gazans shuttered indoors, and threaten to drag Israeli forces into the fray.
Over the weekend, Hamas militants landed several blows to Fatah's power base in Gaza, capturing facilities throughout the north belonging to the Fatah-controlled security services of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas fighters abducted on Saturday the nephew of former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, one of dozens to be kidnapped in the violence, and on Thursday intercepted trucks believed to be carrying arms to forces loyal to Abbas.
Meanwhile, Fatah fighters destroyed laboratories, lecture halls, and a library at Hamas-run Islamic University. They also attacked Gaza's A-Shifa Hospital, thought to be controlled by Hamas.
Unlike Gaza, where the sides are thought to be evenly matched, Fatah's superiority in men and arms is undisputed in the West Bank. And yet, Fatah militants are spooked by rumors that Hamas is quietly moving to replicate its Gaza Executive Force, or tanfideyeh, in West Bank.
Bassem Ezbeidi, a Bir Zeit University political science professor, expects the Hamas-Fatah conflict to remain confined to Gaza, but cautions that a West Bank flare-up can't be ruled out.
"Fatah has been very provocative by kidnapping," says Mr. Ezbeidi. "Fatah is sending a message that, 'We are strong here and we are reacting to what Hamas is doing in Gaza.' It's a war of messages"
Militants like Mr. Kanna have spent most of the past six years bracing for Israeli incursions into Nablus. Last week, however, he and as many as 30 Al Aqsa Brigades gunmen ambushed the local Education Ministry building to kidnap five men accused of membership in the Hamas tanfidiyeh.
Brandishing an M-16, Kanna tells how he got word that a group of masked Hamas gunmen had unleashed a round of bullets near the Nablus municipality a week ago, and fled to the Education Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas. Kanna says the Fatah gunmen attacked the ministry building because it allegedly serves as a training base for the tanfidiyeh.
"The Ministry of Education has been used by Hamas as a military camp," he says. "The objective was to tell them we do not recognize the illegal Executive Force."
A stairwell gun battle between Hamas and Fatah sent employees throughout the building ducking for cover behind closed doors.
Kanna claims to have extracted confessions from the five abductees, but they were released several hours later as a quid pro quo for Hamas's decision to release abductees of their own in Gaza. The militant says he planned to continue the tactic of kidnapping Hamas members to use as bargaining chips.
On the same day, Nablus council member Fayad al Aghbar – a Hamas politician – was kidnapped at gunpoint live on camera at a branch of the Arab Islamic Bank. Mr. Aghbar was hooded, taken to a refugee camp, and interrogated about his alleged involvement in the Hamas executive force. He was released after being held for 10 hours.
"It was a violent, uncivilized affair," he says, denying the existence of a new Hamas force. And yet, at an anniversary celebration of Hamas's founding several weeks ago, members of its military wing made a rare public appearance. "Hamas is capable of responding to Fatah's aggressiveness in Nablus, but Hamas leadership is not keen to transfer the chaos in Gaza to the West Bank," says Aghbar .
A Hamas activist was kidnapped in the West Bank city of Jenin on Friday, and on Sunday, Hamas offices in Bethlehem were torched, according to the Palestinian Ma'an News service. On Saturday in Nablus, two more Hamas activists were abducted.
A spike in West Bank violence threatens to draw the Israeli army into the fighting because it controls access to Palestinian towns to block suicide bombers and attacks on Jewish settlers in the region.
"If a confrontation is to take place around Ramallah and Nablus," says Ezbeidi, it's likely that the Israeli army will be forced to become involved. "They will find many ways to intervene and that would have destructive consequences for all sides."
To be sure, among the West Bank's major cities, Nablus is perhaps the most notorious as a den of crime where young Fatah militants have been making their own laws long before the outbreak of widespread clashes with Hamas. Prominent Nablus families are reported to be hoarding weapons in case of an escalation of internecine violence in the West Bank.
The recent Nablus kidnappings were condemned as unproductive by Nasser Juma'a, a Fatah legislator from Nablus who used to lead a division of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. He accused Hamas of recruiting members in Nablus for its own security force and of "poking the bees' nest" of Fatah armed groups.
If Hamas unveils a new security force in the West Bank, "we will get to a stage like Gaza. It will escalate matters."
Mr. Juma'a says he's hopeful that Mr. Abbas, Mr. Meshal, and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh will reach an agreement on a unity government this week at talks hosted by Saudi Arabia.
• Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza City contributed reporting for this story.