Fugitives From the PA (Extract)

With a crackdown replacing dialogue between Fatah and Hamas, reconciliation in the West Bank seems very remote

17josh224 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Seated on plush sofas in their salon, the four sons of jailed Hamas legislator Mohammed Abu Jheisheh shift nervously and gnaw at their fingers. Periodically, one of them runs to the porch to scout the neighborhood for the Palestinian police officers. Two weeks ago, another brother was arrested and just a few days ago the police raided the house in search of 22-year-old Mutawakkel. "It's really dangerous,'' says Mutawakkel Abu Jheisheh, who sports a sparse beard and is wearing a tight-fitting polo shirt. "Their eyes are everywhere. If they knew we were here, they would come to arrest us.'' Fearing an offensive by the newly bolstered Palestinian police in and around the West Bank City of Hebron, the brothers have decamped from their home village of Idna - located about eight miles west of the city - to hide out in nearby hamlets. While the Palestinian police say he is a criminal, Mutawakkel Abu Jheisheh insists that the family is the target of a political witchhunt against anyone affiliated with Hamas. After running Fatah out of Gaza in June 2007, the Islamic miltants are trying to expand into the West Bank. The police have been holding 28-year-old Mouaz Abu Jheisheh for two weeks without any charges. "If they want to enforce security, there are plenty of drug dealers and mafiosos that are never arrested. They are only concentrating on political arrests. That's not about security,'' 26-year-old Musab Abu Jheisheh accuses. "They want to enforce the security of Israelis through the guns of the Palestinians.'' With its religiously conservative population, the Hebron region is considered one of the most fertile areas for Hamas in the West Bank. It's also been a base for Hamas suicide bombers en route to attacks in southern Israel. If the clashes in Gaza were ever to spread to the West Bank, Hebron could be difficult to quell. While U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed deployments of foreign-trained battalions of Palestinian police here and in the northern West Bank as evidence that Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority is making strides toward reestablishing law and order, many Palestinians view the new troops as new muscle for the Fatah-dominated PA in a struggle to pressure Hamas. Palestinian human rights groups complain that the arrests are part of a tit for tat contest with Hamas in Gaza. Currently, the PA police hold 200 political prisoners in its jails, while Hamas has arrested the top Fatah leaders in the Gaza Strip. The PA has shut down medical clinics and schools linked to the Islamic militants. Hamas banned posters in Gaza marking the fourth anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat, who had become the symbol of Palestinian nationalism after he founded the Fatah in the 1960s. Hamas seized upon the crackdown this month as an eleventh-hour excuse for skipping out of reconciliation talks in Egypt with Fatah. On the agenda was an Egyptian compromise proposal aimed at restoring the unity government that had existed before Hamas's 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip. But with the crackdown replacing dialogue, a reconciliation seems very remote. The decision by the Islamic militants to boycott the talks has ratcheted up concerns about the outbreak of a new conflict when the term of Abbas ends on January 9. "These are the symptoms of the conflict between the two parties. It puts more problems and obstacles vis à vis dialogue and reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas,'' says Raj Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. "Everybody knows that Hebron is a stronghold of Hamas. That means it's a real challenge to Fatah." The beefed up PA security presence in the city of Hebron, the second largest city in the West Bank, is by no means ubiquitous, but the new reinforcements are hard to miss. Wearing blue fatigues under equipment vests that read "Special Police Forces'' in English, the newly deployed Palestinian security detail brandish M-16s and Kalatchnikov rifles. They cruise the city in police vans, though a good deal of their work is focused on the villages outside of the city, says Hebron Governor Hussein Al-Arwaj. At the entrance to the city, unarmed police pull over trucks and vans to check for contraband. "The main target of the operation is to show the people security and stability,'' Al-Arwaj tells The Report. "It's to show the presence of the Palestinian Authority.'' The governor dismisses the accusations of political arrests. "That concept doesn't exist in our lexicon. We have thousands of Hamas people in Hebron and we haven't entered their houses.'' Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.