July 29, 2008

Fatah is Said to Seize 50 As Palestinian Rift Grows

By Isabel Kershner

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

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

Hamas's action followed a bomb attack late Friday that killed five Hamas militants and a young girl at the Gaza beachfront. Hamas, which controls Gaza, blamed Fatah, whose leaders denied involvement.

In Gaza, 200 Fatah members or supporters were said to have been arrested by Hamas security forces since Friday, and dozens of Fatah- affiliated offices were 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 unnamed security officials, an independent Palestinian news agency, Maan, said that those arrested 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 Hamas took over Gaza, a result of a brief factional war in June 2007. Many of the detainees were released within a short time.

Much of the hard-core 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 own activity against Hamas. This month, the Israeli authorities ordered the closure of a shopping mall in Nablus, saying the company that ran it was associated with Hamas. On Sunday, Israeli security forces killed a Hamas militant who had holed up 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 spurred the condemnation of local and international human rights organizations and coincided with growing criticism of the behavior of both Palestinian factions over the past year.

Al Haq, another Palestinian human rights group based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, released a report Monday researching 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.

Talal Okal, a political analyst in Gaza who is a trustee of the Fatah-affiliated university Al Azhar and whose offices were raided by Hamas, said over the weekend that recent events were only "serving the interests of Israel" by widening Palestinian divisions.

Separately, as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators prepared to travel to Washington for talks with U.S. officials this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel told a parliamentary committee Monday that it might be possible to bridge gaps on issues like security, borders and refugees by 2009, but not on the status of Jerusalem.

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

Israel took Jerusalem in the 1967 war and then annexed it. The Palestinians demand the eastern part 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 chances of the Jerusalem issue's being resolved so soon.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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