YOUNG men on the alert monitor the entrances to the alleys of one of Gaza's refugee camps. Their eyes scan the area for Israeli patrols. Two cars arrive, and young men toting machine guns emerge.
They flank a stocky young man with curly black hair and a slight limp; all enter an empty small house. Ziad al-Farkan is one of the most wanted Palestinians for belonging to a paramilitary group on the Israeli Army's list.
Ziad has become a legend in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. He escaped from the Ansar 2, an Israeli detention camp in the Negev Desert, 11 months ago.
Since then, Ziad has become a symbol of a new rebellious breed of young men in Gaza who are running the labyrinths of Gazan refugee camps, defying Israeli occupation and sometimes the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) itself.
They are the Fatah Sqour (Hawks), once the paramilitary wing of the mainstream PLO faction that signed the peace treaty with Israel last September. They now symbolize a lost generation of youths who feel targeted by Israel and let down by the PLO leadership.
The young Hawks take pride in their tragic situation; it gives them a social status in a world that is rapidly slipping into the unknown. Many older activists from Fatah and other groups say the Hawks are complicating an already volatile situation.
They are also known as the Mutaradeen, the wanted or the hunted. They pose one of the most serious challenges to both Israel and the PLO. To Israel, they represent Palestinian defiance; to the PLO, they are part of an internal crisis that is splitting the movement. And they are a symbol of the chaos that has swept the Israeli-occupied territories since Israel and the PLO signed the September pact.
As they entered the room, the young men lay their shiny weapons - Israeli-made Uzi and Galil machine guns, Russian AK-47s, and Swedish Carl Gustavs (nicknamed Carlos) - on mattresses.
The Hawks speak with bitterness in their voices. They see no hope in the peace accord. ``I took part in organizing the celebrations on Sept. 1. We were fooled by it all,'' says Fayez, choosing to hold his gun. These young men, whose numbers are mushrooming every day, are a stark challenge to the old guard of Fatah leaders who are struggling for a smooth transition to Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.
``We have abided by the leadership's decisions and orders, but the situation has gotten worse'' Ziad says. ``But it seems that the leadership does not know or does not care.''
Ziad's criticism of the leadership stems mainly from the failure of the negotiations so far to lead to an Israeli release of all Palestinian prisoners and an end to hunting Palestinians wanted for security reasons by the Israelis.
Immediately after signing the peace accord in Washington, Fatah ordered its paramilitary wing to turn over its weapons and turn themselves in to the Israeli Army. In return, Israel promised to issue amnesty to all the Hawks and those on the ``wanted list'' who chose to abide by the cease-fire pledged by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
But on Nov. 26, Israeli troops killed Ahmed Abu al-Reish, shortly after he was released by Israel. The Israelis said it was a mistake, but the Hawks and most Gazans saw only a deliberate assassination.
``Since then, we have felt targeted. Many of us went into hiding again,'' says Sheik Ismail, an older Fatah Hawk who musters a great deal of support among youths in the refugee camps.
During the years of the intifadah (uprising), Ismail went underground, earning the name of Sheik of the Mutaradeen. The new Mutaradeen, who are in their teens and early 20s, look up to Ismail, who sounds and behaves more like an Islamic religious leader. As he speaks, at least 20 sad-eyed young men nod their heads in agreement. ``The peace accord has proved to be a big farce,'' Ismail says emphatically. ``Our people are coming to terms with this truth.''
Gaza, a Mediterranean strip that houses five Palestinian refugee camps, is one of two areas where Palestinian self-rule will be applied in an agreed upon three-year transitional period. Israeli troops are supposed to start pulling out on April 13, turning the strip over to the PLO and a several-thousand-strong, lightly armed Palestinian police force.
Mr. Arafat will have to depend on Fatah members and former fighters to control the strip. But as the peace process fails to deliver changes, an increasing number of Fatah members are abandoning the cease-fire and going underground.
``I think it is time to go back to clandestine resistance. This is a trap,'' Ismail says.
A network of protection
Other Hawks have already gone or were forced back underground. Ziad is accompanied by at least 10 other Hawks who have chosen to join him. Others help by providing him food and shelter and setting up a monitoring network to shield him from occasional Israeli raids sweeping the area of Al Nusseirat refugee camp (where Ziad's mother lives).
In Fayez's view, which was echoed by most Mutaradeen interviewed, the leadership in Tunis, particularly Arafat, is bent on destroying Fatah and setting up a more malleable organization. ``We represent the Fatah that was born on Jan. 1, 1965. Tunis is forming a new Fatah that was born Sept. 13,'' when the accord was signed, Fayez says. His comrades join in nervous laughter.
Fayez, like Ibrahim and Ismail and many of these young men, finished his high school education while others from their generation dropped out to join the revolution. Now they are afraid that they have no place in a new Palestinian establishment that requires qualified technocrats.
``My only profession is a Mutarad [a political fugitive]; I know nothing else,'' Ismail says. ``I have no problem if an economist is appointed to run economic affairs. I cannot do it, but we want to be sure that our sacrifices will lead to an end of the occupation. So far we see no sign of that.''
Many Gazans say that the desperate young people on the run are responsible for kidnapping and killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.
There is no estimate of the number of the Mutaradeen, since they are no longer confined to the young men pursued by the Israeli occupation authorities for security reasons - acts of military resistance against the Army. New young men join daily.
Stories emerge constantly of young men who send messages to their families that they have joined those who are determined to continue fighting the Israeli Army.
In Rafah, the northern border city swarming with smuggled guns, a young Hawk eager to see his fiance was captured by the Israelis in her family's house. The house was demolished, and the young man was taken away.
``Fatah has failed to deal with this dangerous phenomenon that reflects the mess at the negotiating process and internal splits within Fatah,'' says Ghazi abu-Jiab from the opposition Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
PLO leadership struggles
The regional leadership of Fatah, appointed by Arafat, has unsuccessfully tried to control the Mutaradeen. But Arafat, who seems to be trying to ensure control of Gaza before returning, has not helped by appointing traditional figures and brushing aside the younger leadership that emerged during the years of the Palestinian uprising.
The Israeli Army, meanwhile, continues hunting down the Mutaradeen. Rarely a week passes without an Israeli raid resulting in arrests of the hunted young people. Mothers and wives hear about the arrests from Israeli television or radio. Um Marwan heard the news of the Israeli Army raid in the neighborhood of Sheik Radawn on the 7 p.m. news broadcast.
``Marwan is gone,'' the tall Bedouin woman laments of her son, tears in her eyes. ``At least he is alive,'' says another son, trying to comfort. Like all of the mothers of the Mutaradeen, some of whom belong to other groups besides Fatah, Um Marwan worries about the possibility of receiving news of her son's death.
For a while, the Mutaradeen found a relatively safe haven in Al Shaboura refugee camp, in Rafah.
A stronghold for Fatah, Shaboura is nicknamed Fatahland, but its reputation as a sanctuary came to a tragic end when undercover Israeli agents, disguised as Arabs, killed one of the young Hawk's leaders, Salim al-Wafi, on Feb. 3.
The others feel and sound like they are on death row. ``I am not going to allow them to capture me again.... I would rather die,'' says Ziad, as he moves off to another hiding place, the sun setting and curfew hour approaching.