Arafat's New Task: Mend Rift
'Who killed Muhi ed-Din el-Sharif?' sows discord among Palestinians in Israel.
JABALYA, GAZA STRIP
Two years ago, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tried a new strategy on his competitors from the Muslim fundamentalist group Hamas: If you can't beat them, get them to join you.Skip to next paragraph
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That's when Mr. Arafat lured prominent Hamas spokesman and newspaper publisher Imad Faluji into a job as minister of post and communications. The goal: Mend fences with Hamas, and draw the Islamists out of the bombing business and into politics as a legitimate party.
"We want a positive relationship with Hamas," Mr. Faluji says in an interview in his large salon, a frequent meeting place for Hamas and Palestinian Authority (PA) officials. "That is my job. I'm the bridge between the sides."
But that bridge is looking rickety in the aftermath of the assassination last month of Hamas's head bombmaker in Ramallah.
Finger-pointing in the wake of that incident threatens to escalate infighting among Palestinians at a time when Arafat needs to keep militants in check to gain ground in the long-stalled peace process with Israel.
Visits by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross this week hold out some hope of a breakthrough. Yesterday in Gaza, Mr. Blair sought support for a summit next month in London. But ripples from the bombmaker case may be hard to quell.
It still remains unclear who killed Muhi ed-Din el-Sharif, but it is certain that he was shot and killed hours before his body was placed next to a car that was then blown up. After initially blaming Israel, Arafat's investigators pointed instead to an inside job by Hamas members.
Hamas still insists Israel carried out the killing, possibly with the help of Palestinian collaborators or even the PA. Israel maintains it had no part at all in the deed, though Mr. Sharif did top their most-wanted list for orchestrating several suicide bombings.
If Sharif was shot by someone within Hamas, it holds out the danger of a hard-line faction splitting off from relatively moderate forces in the organization. That could spell more violence if a maverick splinter group decides to use more bombing attacks.
The strain also puts Arafat in a difficult position with Palestinians who oppose a crackdown on Hamas, because even those who aren't in the organization feel it harms national unity.
At the same time, the new tensions could place Arafat in a better light with the Israelis because scores of Hamas members have been arrested in recent weeks - something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded as a precondition to making several overdue troop withdrawals in the West Bank.
Some Palestinian sources suggest that Sharif was shot by other Hamas members because he did not want to continue building bombs. That dispute mirrors a larger debate that goes on quietly between Hamas members who favor as many attacks on Israel as possible and those who think that such acts only serve to hurt their own, as in the travel closures following bombings that devastate the Palestinian economy.
The investigation is still going on. Faluji says that if it does conclude that the murder was an internal assassination, that would harm Hamas's good image among some Palestinians - and could foretell unchecked terrorism.
"If that's true, it's a very dangerous curve for Hamas," he says. "Hamas is a movement now ... you can talk to them. The danger is if a group splits off from Hamas and works underground, they have no leader and no address."