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Arrests increase tensions between Palestinian factions
By Isabel Kershner
The International Herald Tribune
30 July 2008

http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/07/29/africa/29mideast.php?page=2

JERUSALEM: Tensions between the main rival Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah, spread from Gaza to the West Bank on Monday with reports of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority security forces detaining more than 50 activists and academics associated with Hamas.

The timing of the detentions, which were focused in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, smacked of retaliation for a broad Hamas sweep against Fatah members and institutions in Gaza over the weekend.

The Hamas campaign followed a deadly bomb attack late Friday that killed five Hamas militants and a young girl at the Gaza beachfront. Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza, blamed Fatah, whose leaders denied involvement from their headquarters in the West Bank.

In Gaza, 200 Fatah members or supporters were said to have been arrested by Hamas security forces since Friday, and many Fatah-affiliated offices have been raided and closed.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, an independent organization based in Gaza, said the detention of Hamas supporters in the West Bank started late Saturday in the areas of Tulkarm and Qalqilya.

Citing unidentified security officials, an independent Palestinian news agency, Maan, said that those arrested on Monday included the acting mayor of Nablus, Hafiz Shaheen, and his son, Qadri. The elected mayor and his deputy are in Israeli custody.

The Palestinian Authority, whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, is also the chief of Fatah, arrested waves of Hamas supporters in the West Bank after the Islamic group took over Gaza following a brief factional war in June 2007. Many of the detainees were released shortly thereafter.

Much of the Hamas leadership of the West Bank is already in jail in Israel. The Israeli Army retains overall security responsibility in the area and has recently stepped up its activity against Hamas, a militant Islamic group that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization.

Earlier this month the Israeli authorities ordered the closure of a shopping mall in Nablus, saying the company that runs it is associated with Hamas. On Sunday, Israeli security forces killed a Hamas militant who they said was hiding in a house in Hebron, and who was wanted for his role in a double suicide bombing in the Israeli town of Dimona that killed an elderly woman in February.

But the latest tit-for-tat arrests by Hamas and Fatah were criticized by local and international human rights organizations. The arrests coincided with growing criticism of the behavior of both Palestinian factions over the last year.

Al Haq, a Palestinian rights group based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, released a report on Monday on what it called a `horrifying and blatantly illegal trend` of arbitrary arrests, torture and other cruel or degrading treatment against individuals in the West Bank and Gaza by `various Palestinian security or military agencies and personnel.` Al Haq said the maltreatment had resulted in three deaths in Gaza and one in the West Bank since June 2007.

Human Rights Watch is to release a report on Wednesday documenting abuses by Hamas against Fatah in Gaza, and by Fatah against Hamas in the West Bank, in the past year.

Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch and the primary author of the report, said Monday that the recent flare-up of arrests by both sides was `an intensification of the patterns we`ve seen since the takeover of Gaza.`

Speaking by telephone from Gaza, where he and another Human Rights Watch representative met with senior Hamas officials, Abrahams said the Hamas leaders explained the violations as `mistakes.`

Talal Okal, a political analyst in Gaza and a member of the board of trustees of Al Azhar University, which is affiliated with Fatah and whose offices were among those raided by Hamas, said in an interview over the weekend that the latest events were only `serving the interests of Israel` by deepening Palestinian divisions.

The factional tensions coincided with new signs that a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement sought by President George W. Bush before his term expires is more and more unlikely. As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators prepared to travel to Washington for talks with American officials, Israel`s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, told a parliamentary committee that the future status of Jerusalem was a major obstacle.

Olmert stated that negotiations over the city had not even started yet, according to an Israeli official who attended the committee meeting. Olmert said he hoped to reach an agreement with the Palestinians on a mechanism to deal with the issue in 2009.

The Palestinians demand the eastern part of Jerusalem, which Israel conquered in the 1967 war and later annexed, as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The Bush administration has urged the Israelis and Palestinians to try to resolve the core issues of the conflict by the end of this year, but a spokesman for Olmert already expressed doubts in early June about the prospects.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said this meant that `Israel isn`t serious about reaching an agreement.`

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