Tensions are once again mounting between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority following the weekend abduction of five Hamas members from their homes in the West Bank.
PA security officers and members of the ruling Fatah party are believed to be behind the kidnappings which, Palestinians say, may trigger an all-out confrontation between the PA and Hamas.
Meanwhile, the armed wings of eight Palestinian factions announced on Saturday that they had signed a "national covenant of honor" that aims at preventing internecine fighting. According to a Hamas spokesman in Gaza City, the covenant states that "as long as the Israeli occupation exists, the resistance will always support people's national and strategic choice to fight the occupation."
The kidnappings of the Hamas members occurred almost simultaneously, prompting many Palestinians to believe that they were part of a concerted effort by the PA to send a message of warning to the Islamic movement. All the Hamas men were released unharmed after several hours.
The abductions came in response to the shooting and kidnapping of a senior Palestinian security officer in Gaza City last Thursday. Sami Ajouri, deputy commander of the PA's General Intelligence Force, was snatched from his car, shot in the leg and bundled into another vehicle. Ajouri was later released, and Hamas denied allegations it was behind the kidnapping.
Sources in Ramallah said Fatah gunmen belonging to the Aksa Martyrs Brigades group and PA General Intelligence officers were involved in the kidnapping of the Hamas activists.
Prof. Riad al-Ras, head of the engineering department at An-Najah University, was kidnapped at gunpoint from his home in Tulkarm late Thursday night and freed three hours later.
The professor, who was freed with a torn shirt and black eye, said he had no idea who kidnapped him or what they wanted. "People came and took me by force. They didn't treat me well, and then they apologized and told he I would be taken home," he said.
However, sources in Tulkarm told The Jerusalem Post that Ras was held in a detention center belonging to the General Intelligence Force a claim that was later denied by the local commander of the security force.
The other four Hamas members who were kidnapped are Bassem Abeido, a businessman from Hebron; Hassan Safi, a prominent Hamas activist in Bethlehem; Kamal Shaheen, a school teacher from Nablus; and Abdel Nasser Abu Khamis, the imam of a mosque from the Jenin area.
Shaheen told reporters shortly after his release that one of the kidnappers had shown him papers indicating that he was an intelligence officer. He added that he was questioned in an office of the intelligence service in Nablus and told he was snatched because of recent events in the Gaza Strip.
A hitherto unknown group calling itself the Brigades of Omar Bin al-Khattab claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.
The group said in a statement that the kidnappings were intended to send a message to all Hamas members trying to damage the Palestinian Authority. The group accused Hamas of violating the law and attacking Palestinian policemen and vowed to respond to any attempts to harm the PA, its institutions or leaders.