Fatah refugees bused to Jericho

Defense Ministry, Abbas's office agree returning men to Gaza would put their lives in immediate danger.

IDF Fatah refugees 224.8 (photo credit: AP)
IDF Fatah refugees 224.8
(photo credit: AP)
Fatah refugees who were still in Israel after fleeing Saturday's fierce fighting with Hamas in Gaza were put on two civilian buses in Beersheba on Monday afternoon, two days after fleeing a Hamas assault on their Gaza City neighborhood. The men, about 90 altogether, began arriving in Jericho Monday afternoon. They will be housed at the Palestinian National Security headquarters in Jericho, Palestinian officials said. The Defense Ministry and the Palestinian Authority decided late Monday morning to transfer the refugees to Jericho. The announcement overturned a decision made overnight Sunday to have them sent to Ramallah, which had marked a reversal of a previous decision to send them back to Gaza. The decision to send the Fatah men to the West Bank city followed discussions overnight Sunday between Defense Ministry officials and the office of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Of the 188 Fatah members who entered Israel, 35 were sent back to Gaza on Sunday at the request of Abbas, who had initially asked Israel to treat the wounded and only facilitate the transfer to the West Bank of five members of the Hilles clan, including its leader Ahmed Hilles. Nevertheless, after the 35 returned Fatah members were immediately arrested by Hamas, the IDF filed an objection with the Defense Ministry that sending the remaining refugees back to Gaza would endanger their lives. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's office then contacted Abbas's office and after talks throughout the night, it was decided that the men would be sent to the West Bank after all. The Defense Ministry said in a statement that it received information that "they were being arrested by Hamas and that their lives were in immediate danger." Security officials stressed that the Palestinians had undergone rigorous checks by the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and that those suspected of involvement in terrorist activity would be detained for questioning. Twenty-three Palestinians, most of them belonging to the Hilles clan, were being treated in two Israeli hospitals. Hamas said later Monday that it had released all but four of the 35 Fatah detainees. The decision not to send the fleeing Fatah supporters back to the Strip also came after the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice. The petitioners stated that forcing the Fatah loyalists to return to Gaza could endanger their lives and called it a serious violation of human rights and of Israeli law. The wrangling over the fate of the Fatah refugees came a day after the bloodiest day of Hamas-Fatah fighting since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007. In all, 11 people were killed and dozens wounded during a Hamas raid on a Fatah stronghold in Gaza City on Saturday.