Israeli amnesty offer divides militants

Al Aqsa members are skeptical that the disarmament deal will yield concrete results.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sitting with a heavily bandaged right hand at his office in Nablus, Faiz Tirawi says the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade is as committed as ever to pushing Israel out of all the land it seized in 1967 – by force if necessary. And he seethes at the "treachery" of the Islamist group Hamas, which he describes as the tool of a "dangerous Iranian agenda for Palestine."

But it wasn't a clash with either of these two old enemies of the Fatah movement, which spawned his brigade, that injured his hand. Instead, the head of Al Aqsa's Nablus unit ruefully explains that it was sprained when he lost his temper and punched an Al Aqsa comrade last week after Israel extended a controversial amnesty offer to wanted Al Aqsa militants.

"I think Israel's policy is to try to destroy Al Aqsa by turning Palestinians on other Palestinians, and some of our leaders aren't being careful enough about this," says Mr. Tirawi. And it's not just him. Al Aqsa's wing in Gaza called the agreement to relinquish weapons "shameful. We carry weapons for one reason; liberating Jerusalem and establishing an independent Palestinian state, which has not been achieved,'' it reads. "This agreement is going to strengthen other factions who fight the occupation. We urgently appeal to the resistance to avoid falling into this trap."

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The goal: Strengthen Abbas, secure Israel

Israeli officials and the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas, who now only governs the West Bank after losing Gaza to Hamas in a brief civil war last month, says the idea is to strengthen Mr. Abbas while improving security for Israel, something that country demands as a precondition before making meaningful concessions toward peace.

But the signs of deepening mistrust and factional violence in Nablus and other West Bank cities bode ill for the prospects of disarmament by Fatah-linked militias or a turning away from political violence.

If the cracks continue to widen, the process could end up weakening Abbas – who already suffers from the absence of a militant pedigree and the perception of many Palestinians that he's too close to the US and Israel – rather than helping him.

Israel has promised to cancel the arrest warrants for 178 Al Aqsa members if they promise not to participate in attacks against Israel and agree to a three-month period of disarmament and containment, after which they will be absorbed into the uniformed, armed security services loyal to Abbas.

Militants insist on concrete progress

While numerous militants in the West Bank have accepted the amnesty offer, those interviewed by the Monitor caution that if no progress is made on key issues such as a return to the 1967 borders and an end to Israeli incursions into the West Bank, the disarmament will be short-lived. They also are calling for more Al Aqsa militants to be included on the list; in the Nablus area, 121 are included while an estimated 270 are excluded, including Tirawi and his brother Jamal, a senior Al Aqsa and Fatah member who was elected to the Palestinian parliament.

"For now, I've stopped resistance to occupation. The Palestinian Authority has promised that my life will improve as a result," says Mehdi Meruka, an Al Aqsa member who is tired after two years on the run and is cooperating with the amnesty plan. "But you have to remember that this agreement is just ink on paper. If more of my comrades aren't amnestied, if the Israelis don't stop incursions, and if progress towards a state on 1967 borders isn't made, of course we'll rise again."

He says new weapons can easily be obtained and says that to characterize what's going on as an Al Aqsa surrender is wrong. Then during a discussion of his family, he cheerfully shows a video on his phone of his three young sons – all under age 11 – learning to shoot his American-made M-16 and M-4 guns.

Hamas-Fatah divisions

Many Palestinians believe the amnesty is less about directly strengthening Israel's security and more about strengthening Fatah's ability to use its security services to target Hamas in the West Bank to prevent it from strengthening its position there and prevent it, perhaps, from eventually taking power there. A number of the men offered amnesty have been deeply involved in operations against Hamas this year.

But many, such as Da'ass Qanna, the respected Al Aqsa leader in the nearby village of Kufr Khalil, are wary that the amnesty will yield tangible results. Earlier this year men under his command kidnapped dozens of Hamas supporters and local elected officials in a program he said was designed to force Hamas to make concessions to Fatah and form a unity government, which fell apart with Hamas's Gaza takeover.

"This is a big risk for us because we don't see any concrete commitment to making concessions from Israel," he says. "I don't carry a gun because it's my hobby – if Israel withdraws, we'll have no reason to resist anymore. So we're told that what we're doing is strengthening Abbas. Ok, but there's only so much we can do for him. Without results – most important to me is an end to Israeli incursions – this all falls apart."

The hostility between Hamas and Fatah was on full display during a Hamas demonstration in Nablus last Wednesday that nearly veered into bloodshed.

Fatah-aligned secret police, soldiers, and some Al Aqsa members were out in force to contain the roughly 200 women who were peacefully demanding that some 80 Hamas supporters, most family members who were arrested by Fatah a few weeks ago, be released.

"Why are most of the protestors women? Well, they've illegally kidnapped most of the Hamas men in Nablus," said a woman who said her husband, Adnan al-Bedawi, a Koran teacher, was taken on July 4. "My husband is just a supporter, not a leader. But they're afraid there will be a revolution here like there was in Gaza."

Some of the women alleged that their family members had been tortured. After Ahmed al-Haj Ali, a Hamas legislator from Nablus who served 10 years in Israeli prisons, and was detained shortly by Fatah earlier this month, started attacking the corruption of Fatah and its policy of arresting Hamas politicians and supporters, he was roughly grabbed and dragged into a nearby police station.

The increasingly agitated women began chanting, "God is great," and tried to press into the compound where he was being held. After an hour, Mr. Ali emerged and called for calm, but then Rammi Nasser, a Hamas supporter recently released from Israeli prison, showed up and was promptly set upon by the linebacker-sized Al Aqsa member Ahmed Abu Selkah and his friends.

Mr. Selkah is one of the Al Aqsa members on Israel's amnesty list, but he is angry that a number of his close friends remain at risk of arrest. He's also among the many Al Aqsa members who see Hamas members as traitors to the Palestinian cause. After Mr. Nasser wrenched himself out of the Al Aqsa men's grasp, Selkah pulled his 9-millimeter pistol from his pants, and chased Nasser around the frightened, milling crowd, many of whom screamed out they were convinced that Nasser was about to be murdered.

The uniformed Fatah security services did not intervene to control Seltah, who earlier had been mingling with them. Instead, other people pushed Selkah's gun down, and Nasser was dragged into the police station. That led to another surge to the gates by the women, with the police pushing and shouting, and eventually firing dozens of rounds into the air to disperse the crowd. More calls for calm were made by Hamas leaders, and a bout of inter-Palestinian killing was avoided.

Militants could be rearmed in three months

Though many Al Aqsa members are participating in the amnesty program and have handed at least some of their weapons in (there is no mechanism in place to verify complete disarmament), the current plan envisions them joining the security services in three months, which means they'll be armed again.

But many Al Aqsa members, such as Tirawi, remain armed. Despite the differences with his comrades, however, Tirawi says that he isn't close to an all-out split. While he says he's frustrated, he's also waiting to see if more militants are offered amnesty and if progress is made on issues he cares about.

"We've lost a lot of people; this is a resting period for us, a consolidation,'' he says. "The Israelis always use the excuse of our actions as the reason it's not getting rid of settlements or getting its troops away from us. So let's see what comes.

"Do I expect the Israelis to keep their end of the bargain? No, they never do. For now, we'll restrain ourselves to help Fatah's agenda. But if there's a single arrest or assault on us, we'll burn the whole thing down to the ground."

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