As Israel leaves Gaza, will militants lay down their guns?

President Abbas is faced with a growing challenge from Palestinian militants as they vie for influence in Gaza.

Not yet 30 and already boasting three years of experience in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Raed Abu Faddak is wondering whether he will soon have to find a new occupation.

After quitting college and then working in a textile factory in Israel, Mr. Abu Faddak joined Al Aqsa, one of many groups that sprang up around the intifada when it began five years ago this month after Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down.

"If there's no Israeli occupation, there is no need for resistance," says Abu Faddak, dressed in military gear that, judging from the Hebrew inside his khaki flak jacket, is stolen from the Israeli army. "If they leave Gaza, we won't fight from Gaza. But if they're still in Ramallah, there will be resistance in Ramallah."

Just as Israeli struggled against Israeli as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan, to be completed next week, Palestinian is now facing Palestinian in a tug of war over what comes next.

While some, like Abu Faddak (whose name may be a pseudonym), think that Palestinians should stop attacking Israel from Gaza if Israel completely reverses its 38-year occupation here, other militant groups, including Hamas, say the struggle should continue.

Moreover, the proliferation of militant groups alongside a weak Palestinian Authority (PA) means that during the transition - in which Palestinians stand to gain 21 former Israeli settlements - some ambitious groups are seizing the opportunity to stake their claim in the new Gaza.

The assassination Wednesday of Mousa Arafat, a cousin of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, some here say, was an attempt by some groups to force the rule of the gun over the rule of law.

"Now, instead of looking for an apartment and a job and security, these [militants'] expectations and ambitions have increased. They are trying to get a bigger piece of the cake," says Ziad Abu Amr, a Gaza City representative to the Palestinian legislative council and author of several books on Islamic militants in Gaza. "The PA seems to be paralyzed and unable to establish the rule of law, so they figure they can get away with things and get concessions."

One solution, says Dr. Abu Amr, is to coax the different factions into a dialogue with the PA. This would bring them into a process of national goal-setting for possible Palestinian statehood. "The challenge is not coming from the factions which are engaged in a dialogue with the PA, Hamas included," he says. "These started as groups with grievances, and now they are becoming more and more autonomous and gaining more power."

Indeed, one of those grievances was corruption, and many of the young militants viewed Arafat's assassination as a symbolic comeuppance for a whole array of misdeeds within the PA. Abu Faddak, for one, hoped it would be a warning sign to the PA.

"An important figure and symbol of corruption has been executed, but he should have been brought to a real trial. The Palestinian law should have taken its place on this issue," he says. "In the last two years, we ran many demonstrations in the streets demanding President Arafat to fire this man. I hope this will provoke the PA to start working on corruption."

Militants in new Gaza

Abu Faddak rearranges his Kalashnikov at his side and gives visitors to his home an explanation of everything splayed out across his coffee table. On it sits cups of tea, lemon-lime soda, grenades, and several sets of ignition switches that can be used to detonate a remote bomb. A child sits in the doorway to watch.

The mix of practical and tactical sums up the conflicting currents coursing through the heightened tensions here.

Some militants are looking at the possibility that, if Israel's withdrawal from Gaza is total, they will be under pressure to put down their guns and pick up civilian work. Others are viewing the edge of lawlessness on which the PA is perched, along with Mr. Abbas's tenuous control, and looking to capitalize on the power vacuum.

Abu Faddak, for his part, says he hopes the PA will bring groups like his under one military tent by absorbing them into its security and police forces. If not, he says, he might go back to tailoring, which would allow him to be home at night with his wife and two children - instead of on missions against the Israeli army.

Israel's withdrawal makes it possible that the raison d'être for these groups - fighting Israeli occupation - will disappear. But on the question of whether to lay down arms, Abu Faddak says, he does not look to Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, for leadership.

"Abu Mazen is always angry with the resistance," Abu Faddak says. "He doesn't agree with resistance in general. He's a politician who believes in peaceful means only, but Arafat left the doors open. We don't care about what Abu Mazen says. He didn't give us the orders to fight."

The Palestinian leader, who inherited an already weak authority after Arafat's death last November, is left struggling to satisfy the demands of his own people while cooperating with Israel to maximize the peace dividends of the pullout.

The Palestinian view

Palestinian opinion polls underline the environment of uncertainty. While 72 percent of Palestinians view the pullout as a victory for armed resistance, about two-thirds oppose the continuation of armed attacks against Israelis from Gaza if the Israeli withdrawal is complete, according to a survey released in June by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, based in Ramallah. However, some 60 percent of those polled said they oppose the collection of arms from armed groups.

Al-Quds, a Palestinian daily, reported that the PA would wait a month until after the Israeli withdrawal is complete to "tackle the issue of the weapons of resistance." That tough task is being pushed by Israel as a way to show that Abbas is doing his part alongside disengagement.

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