Uncertainty for Hamas in West Bank

Politicians affiliated with the group say they fear more Palestinian factional violence.

Khouloud el-Masri insists her al-Juthur cultural center was nothing more than a place for teaching women.

But gunmen loyal to Fatah dismissed it as a cover for Hamas indoctrination. They set it on fire at the height of the fighting in Gaza two weeks ago between the Palestinian factions. The center was destroyed and the blaze nearly sent the building where Mrs. Masri lives with her husband and five children up in smoke.

Now, Masri, an elected councilmember and one of the most prominent female faces of Hamas's political wing in the West Bank, is living on the run. She sleeps in a different house every night, taking a few of the kids with her, while her husband takes the remainder elsewhere.

Of Nablus's 15 city council members, 13 are members of Hamas, or, as the group called itself at the polls, the Change and Reform Party. Both the mayor and deputy mayor, also from Hamas, were arrested by Israel about a month ago. And now, nearly everyone who was elected in a 2004 municipal vote to run this city is persona non grata not just to Israel but to the Fatah-run Palestinian emergency government set up by Mahmoud Abbas.

But how Mr. Abbas decides to deal with Hamas elements in the West Bank will be key to future stability and governance in this Palestinian territory. And from the remnants in Masri's center to the hide-outs of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant offshoot of Fatah, there is a pervasive sense that the Hamas coup in Gaza was not the end to a violent chapter of internecine Palestinian warfare.

Locked out of city council

After the guns in Gaza fell quiet, Masri tried to go back to work at the city council. At the entrance to the municipal building, she was met by gunmen, she says. "Khouloud el-Masri, from now on you're not allowed here. Don't come back again," she recalls.

As she walks through the remains of the center, she admits she fears the worst, and checks them off quickly. "Being killed, being kidnapped. Being taken to jail," she says.

She feels that Abbas has been encouraging this behavior of the Fatah militants: first, by not condemning it, and then by making a long-awaited speech last week in which he called Hamas "murderers" and "coupmakers."

"The overwhelming affect of this speech is provocation and confrontation," she says. "The speech of the president was legitimizing the acts of these Fatah groups. I think there should be an open dialogue between Hamas and Fatah."

But according to Abbas, the time for dialogue has passed. Last week, his new emergency cabinet officially cut off all contacts with Hamas. Doing so has helped open the doors to direct international aid to the PA, which has been embargoed for the last year and-a-half. Israel is about to release customs tax funds worth somewhere between $300 and $400 million withheld, Israel said, because it did not want the money going to Hamas.

Nasser Juma, a Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, says he doesn't condone everything that the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has done because it amounts to vigilante violence. All such groups, he says, are going to have to be integrated into the PA security forces. But what's happened to Hamas people and institutions in Nablus is child's play, he suggests, when compared with Gaza.

"Hamas is killing everybody, killing children, and they've destroyed the Palestinian dream. Hamas in the West Bank has to be eliminated," says Mr. Juma in an interview in his office in the commercial center of Nablus. "I agree with what the council members were told: they should not come to work. I want to suggest to Khouloud el-Masri that she go live in Gaza for even one week. I don't want them bringing the situation of Gaza to the West Bank."

The two wings of Hamas

To West Bank Fatah leaders worried about the strength of Hamas militias, there's little interest now in hearing arguments why there's any reason to differentiate between the group's military and political wings.

"We've been given orders that any Hamas member in the West Bank [should] be rounded up and put in jail," Juma says. On Friday, Abbas ordered all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to obtain new operating licenses, a move that may make many Hamas-affiliated NGOs illegal. The crackdown is becoming palpable enough that Hamas leaders in Gaza have taken notice. Mahmoud Az-Zahar, a Hamas hardliner in Gaza, said in a weekend interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that Hamas members might start carrying out attacks on Fatah in the West Bank because of the sweep.

In the meantime, Nablus is on edge.

"Whatever was done is nothing compared to what was done to us in Gaza," says Sari Hussein, an Al Aqsa leader who acknowledges that some of his men burned Masri's offices. On his cellphone, he shows the footage of a Fatah leader in Gaza being dragged through the street and killed. For him, it's a reminder of what they're up against.

"The leadership is in hiding now, and it's the second- and third-level people who are coming to us and saying, please, please, we don't want trouble," he says. "But why didn't even one of them put their hands up and say, 'We have nothing to do with what's happening in Gaza? No one here in Hamas stood up to condemn what was happening in Gaza. And now the people here are saying, 'Why did we vote for Hamas?' This is the beginning of this war, not the end."

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