Palestinian Deaths in Gaza Rend Fabric of PLO's Fatah

SHAKEN by a string of assassinations, the largest Palestinian faction in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip is hastily organizing self-defense vigilante groups.

Leaders of Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are already handing out paramilitary uniforms to the first recruits to a Palestinian National Guard, expected to be about 3,000 strong, according to Palestinians here.

The new force, still unofficial, will operate ``against anyone endangering the people: criminals, murderers, and those trying to use the current stage of the peace process for their own benefit,'' says Tawfiq abu-Khousa, head of the Fatah office in Gaza.

The security squads come too late for Abeer Eboaini, whose father was gunned down by unknown masked men here two months ago, the first of four Fatah officials to be murdered in the two months since news first broke of the secret peace deal between Israel and the PLO.

His relatives say they have no idea why Shehada Ebaoini, the senior Fatah figure in central Gaza's refugee camps, was killed, but Abeer blames fellow Palestinians. Sitting beneath a portrait of her father, she reads an impassioned, open letter to Mr. Arafat that she sent to the Jerusalem daily An Nahar. ``Sir, if you are a real peacemaker, make this peace between your people, then you can make it with Israel,'' she implored.

Eboaini's death was followed by three more murders, all carried out in the same style by masked men; the victims were Mohammed abu-Shaban, a well-known lawyer; his aide, Maher Kehail; and Assad Siftawi, a personal friend of Arafat's.

All were known to support the peace pact with Israel, but few Palestinians are blaming opponents of the deal for the killings. Rather, Gazans say, different factions within Fatah are locked in a power struggle.

Less than two months from the start of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, ``there is a feeling that we are on the edge of independence,'' says one leading Palestinian who declined to be identified, ``and Fatah perceives itself as the party that will be in power. So each power center is trying to weaken the other.''

Fatah officials deny this, taking their lead from Arafat, who blamed ``bats out of the night'' for Siftawi's death, and insisted that the killers came from outside the Arab world.

``The first goal of the killers is to create internal strife in Fatah, and the second is to strike at the peace process by making people think that the coming [Palestinian] authority will not be able to provide security,'' Mr. Khousa argues. Fatah's investigation into the killings is half finished, and the prime suspects are not Fatah members, he says.

But not everyone in Gaza has much faith in the investigation, since Shaban's death was widely blamed on the sort of Fatah neighborhood bosses who have emerged during the intifadah (uprising) as the real power in Gaza. And Khousa is one of them.

Those young Turks in Fatah never paid much attention to the PLO leadership in Tunis, or its representatives in Gaza, when they were ordered to stop killing alleged collaborators with Israel. Now they appear to be struggling for influence against old-guard Fatah leaders such as Siftawi, and among themselves.

In Nuseirat camp, for example, ``there are many Fatah leaders,'' says one resident, asked to name the senior Fatah representative. ``And they are all rivals, of course.''

Ghassan Khatib, a leader of the People's Party, allied with Fatah in support of the peace process, explains: ``Fatah's structure is not based on any organization,'' he says. ``It is mainly individual strongmen with their followers, which is a recipe for power struggles.''

The killings have spread fear among Fatah activists of all stripes. ``Of course many people are frightened,'' says Riyadh Saidam, a local Fatah chieftain in Nuseirat. ``We hope a police force will come soon to protect people.''

Khousa, too, is taking extra precautions. ``I am not afraid,'' he says, ``but I am very careful,'' changing cars often, for example.

PALESTINIANS outside Fatah are perhaps more scared. The murders ``are very dangerous,'' says a prominent Palestinian. ``They are frightening the whole society about its future. If this is what Fatah people do to each other before they are in authority, what will they do to others when they do have authority?''

Meanwhile, the mystery surrounding the killers' identities persists, and Abeer Eboaini is beginning to despair that her father's murderers will be caught.

``If you know who is responsible for these crimes, it is a disaster,'' she wrote in her letter to Arafat, ``... a disaster that you don't hit the hands of the criminals and stop this sea of bloodshed.

``But if you don't know,'' she added, ``it is doubly a disaster.''

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