Gaza Factions Tense Over Self-Rule

Islamists pose the greatest challenge the PLO will establish to civil authority

RIVAL Palestinian factions, nervous about civil war, are pledging to keep their disagreements over the peace deal with Israel from erupting into bloodshed. But as they look ahead to autonomy in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, militants on both sides see trouble in store.

In the week since the signing of the plan, which offers limited self-rule to Palestinians initially in Gaza and the West Bank city of Jericho, supporters of Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization led by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, have draped Gaza in red, green, black, and white Palestinian flags.

Islamic militants belonging to the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), who have denounced the compromise pact as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause, have hung black flags of mourning from their mosques and roofs.

But that is as far as the two groups - whose members fought with knives and guns last year - have taken their dispute. Hamas and Fatah leaders have urged their followers not to clash, and prisoners from the two factions in Gaza's jail last week signed a ``code of honor'' to ``guarantee the right of self expression.''

``The Palestinian people have suffered enough,'' says Wafiq Abu-Sidoh, who runs the Gaza office of the Palestinians' delegation to the Middle East peace talks. ``We don't need more suffering from each other.''

An ultimate trial of strength, however, seems inevitable, for Hamas has threatened to go on attacking Israeli targets, and in three months' time, under the autonomy plan, Palestinian policemen are due to start taking over security in the Gaza Strip.

One key test of autonomy's success, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said last week, is whether PLO forces can keep Islamic radicals under control.

``Nobody, whoever he is, has the right to prevent the Islamic movement from resuming its efforts - however it likes - to achieve the final goal'' of eliminating Israel, says Ahmed Saati, spokesman for the Islamic University in Gaza.

``When the Israeli soldiers withdraw from Gaza, then we will go to the border and fight them in Israel,'' says one Hamas supporter in the Shatti refugee camp. The new authority

That is not how Fatah sees the future. Opponents of the deal ``will have to comply with the rules, because no one will accept that they spoil this agreement,'' warns Frei Abu-Middain, head of the Gaza Bar Association and a member of the Palestinian peace delegation. ``When the rules and regulations are in place, everyone must respect them, and I am sure that the new authority will prevent [Hamas] from launching attacks. It is not fair to put one's people at risk.''

Will the Palestine Liberation Army, where the PLO is likely to seek most of its security men, end up protecting Israeli soldiers? Will the Israeli secret police, the Shin Bet, cooperate with Mr. Arafat's elite Force 17 to root out Islamic guerrillas from Gaza?

The prospects are not far-fetched, and might provoke Hamas into attacking fellow Palestinians, Mr. Saati says. ``Only those in charge of armed operations'' can say how they will treat Palestinian policemen.

Most analysts predict that in time, Hamas will edge away from its hard-line, principled opposition to the autonomy accord, and seek some modus vivendi with the new Palestinian authorities.

``They are smart,'' Mr. Abu-Middain says. ``One way or another, one day if not today, they will come to share the cake.''

Aside from anything else, predicts Raji Surani, a human rights lawyer, ``anyone who wants to continue the struggle with arms and grenades will be simply outside the system. He will be underground, not in a political party, and that is not going to be easy.''

``In this field there is going to be a very clear-cut policy and a very tough reaction'' by the incoming Palestinian authorities, Mr. Surani adds. ``It would be very hard to survive as a group.''

Although the PLO has never run a state, its experience in Lebanon during the civil war, when its guerrillas controlled large swathes of the country, left harsh memories of rough justice for political opponents.

``The same people that signed the agreement are going to be running the police,'' worries Hamas supporter Awad al-Najah, whose son blew himself up in a suicide attack against a Gaza police station last week. ``They will be trained in Egypt and Jordan so that they can come and fight Muslims, and the Israeli prisons will be for Muslim people.''

Mr. Saati says he trusts that ``the Palestinian leadership will be wise enough not to misuse the police authorities.'' But Mr. Surani, whose Gaza Center for Rights and Law has played a leading role in defending Palestinians against the Israeli occupation, says he has no plans to close his office when the Palestinian authority takes over.

``Palestinians have some of the most proficient human rights organizations in the Arab world,'' he says. ``We are not going to say, `Fine, we'll support whatever system exists.' And I am not expecting the best in everything. You have to be realistic.''

``People associated with Hamas are afraid'' of the future authorities, says Salah Abdel-Shafi, son of Palestinian delegation leader Haider Abdel-Shafi. ``I just hope they don't have any grounds for their fears.'' Palestinians need change

But after 27 years of Israeli occupation, Abdel-Shafi argues, ``the people are not going to tolerate any kind of oppression. They need to see real change in their lives, and that means real democracy. It will be difficult for Arafat to deal with Palestinians the way that [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak treats Egyptians.''

If Arafat reaches out to his Islamist opposition, as he is expected to do in order to bolster his leadership, the Islamists seem likely to reciprocate.

``Internal fighting cannot happen,'' says Abdel-Aziz al-Kujuk, one of the 415 Palestinians Israel deported last December, alleging they were Muslim radicals. Mr. Al-Kujuk returned to Gaza last week. ``It is impossible for the Palestinian people to fight among themselves. We are one body, and the disaster would befall all of us.''

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