(photo credit: AP)
Following assassination threats by Hamas and al-Qaida against top Fatah officials, Fatah gunmen in the Gaza Strip have announced the formation of a new security force to protect their leaders.
Members of the 80-member force staged a march in Rafah on Wednesday as their leaders warned against attempts to harm Fatah officials.
A spokesman for the new force said its members came from several branches of Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades. "The No. 1 mission of this elite force is to protect Fatah members and leaders," he said.
The spokesman said the Fatah force had no connection with the new security force recently established by Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Said Siam of Hamas.
Hamas's 3,000-strong force has been sharply criticized by PA leaders, who accused Siam of seeking to undermine the existing PA security forces. Siam has refused to dismantle the force, which consists of Hamas gunmen charged with assisting the security forces in enforcing law and order.
Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, expressed astonishment over the establishment of the Fatah force, saying he did not understand why it was needed when 99 percent of the members of the PA security forces belonged to Fatah.
"This is a very strange decision," he said. "Why does Fatah need protection?"
Earlier this week the PA expressed deep concern over reports that al-Qaida was planning to kill top PA leaders.
The threats prompted Palestinian security forces to take strict measures to protect the leaders, including PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, whose villa in Ramallah has been completely cordoned off.
The latest measures were taken after a hitherto unknown group calling itself al-Tawhid wa Jihad (Unification and Holy War) distributed leaflets in the Gaza Strip threatening to "slaughter" a number of senior officials belonging to Abbas's Fatah party.
This is the first time that the group, which is headed by Jordanian arch-terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, has issued a leaflet in the Gaza Strip, a sign that al-Qaida elements have began operating there.
The leaflet lists five Abbas loyalists who - it said - would soon be "slaughtered" as apostates. They are former PA ministers Muhammad Dahlan, Yasser Abed Rabbo, Nabil Amr and Abu Ali Shaheen, and Samir Mashharawi, a senior Fatah member from the Gaza Strip.
"We hereby declare that we have begun operating in Palestine," the leaflet said, heaping praise on Zarqawi and al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. "We have decided to revive the ritual of slaughter against these people to avoid dissension."
Zarqawi's followers are behind a spate of gruesome killings of foreign nationals in Iraq over the past three years. Most of the victims had their throats slashed while being video taped.
Dahlan, who has been accused by Hamas of spearheading a US-led conspiracy to bring down the new Hamas-controlled PA government, warned against attempts by "suspicious elements" to liquidate PA officials. "They are seeking to spread confusion," he said. "We are taking these threats very seriously and we even know the identity of those behind them."