West Bank Militants Pose Test for Abbas The international community is rallying behind Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as he faces off with the Islamic militant group Hamas. But he is also facing a key battle in his own party, over controlling Fatah's militant wing, the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades.
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West Bank Militants Pose Test for Abbas

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West Bank Militants Pose Test for Abbas

West Bank Militants Pose Test for Abbas

West Bank Militants Pose Test for Abbas

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Supporters of the Fatah movement wave flags at the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah, West Bank. Gunmen loyal to the secular Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stormed the parliament building in search of supporters of the rival Hamas movement. Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

Supporters of the Fatah movement wave flags at the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah, West Bank. Gunmen loyal to the secular Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stormed the parliament building in search of supporters of the rival Hamas movement.

Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will get a big boost in his bitter struggle with Hamas for political legitimacy when he joins Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Jordon's King Abdullah on Monday for a summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh.

But Abbas, who has pledged to restore law and order in the West Bank, faces another important test that speaks to his ability to maintain control. After being routed from Gaza, the armed wing of Abbas' Fatah movement, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, has defied his order to desist in a campaign against Hamas in the West Bank.

In the West Bank town of Nablus, Fayez Tirawi sipped mint tea from a glass cup in a sparse office. Next to him, muscular Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade gunmen clutched American-made M-16s with 9mm handguns stuffed into the waistband of their jeans.

Al Aqsa's reason for being is to fight Israelis. But Balata Al Aqsa Brigade leader Tirawi said these days, the focus is all on Hamas. Tirawi said his gunmen are still infuriated over what he calls Hamas' murderous attacks in Gaza. In the West Bank, he and other gunmen are Fatah's insurance policy against any further Hamas advances.

"The political echelon of Fatah can say what it likes about not repeating the bloodshed here that we had in Gaza," he said. "But the decision of Fatah's fighters in the field is very strong and clear: We want to eradicate Hamas as a movement from the streets of Palestine. We want to put an end to any Hamas presence in the West Bank."

To do that, Tirawi said, the Al Aqsa is systematically disrupting the daily work of Hamas' institutions, undermining the group's financial backers, and intimidating Hamas members. In Nablus, that has meant fire-bombings, shootings, kidnappings and death threats.

Wearing a tightly wrapped head scarf and blue jeans under a head-to-toe traditional long dress, 39-year-old Houloud Al Masri kicked open the charred front door of the Al Juthour Cultural Center, the non-profit Islamist women's aid center until Fatah's Al Aqsa Brigades burned it down a few nights ago. Al Masri is a Hamas member and the elected deputy mayor of Nablus.

Burnt spools of brightly colored thread from sewing classes shared the charred floor with destroyed computers and a pile of vinyl records. Al Masri steps over the remains, visibly shaken. Her trashed cultural center used to provide vocational training and career counseling for more than 200 women.

"I'm in shock, I'm angry," she said. "This destruction is not only the destruction to a building, to resources. It's destruction of human possibilities. The women who were working in this center were the bread winners of their family."

A few weeks ago, Al Masri's Cultural Center was raided by the Israel Defense Forces. Now, Al Masri said, she is far more worried about Fatah gunmen than Israeli soldiers.

In fact, she said she cannot stay here very long. She is on the run in the city she was elected to help lead just two years ago. She sleeps at a different place most every night and worries about the safety of her five children after receiving anonymous warnings on her cell phone and death threats delivered via third parties.

"For sure there's danger on my life and my children's lives. They're always telling me - 'we have prepared something for you, don't do this or else.' All these are messages that carry dangerous threats," she said.

Relations between Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank, Al Masri said coldly, "will never be the same." The factional bloodshed in Gaza exposed what she calls the disingenuous and superficial relations during the months of supposed factional "unity" and cooperation.

Al Masri fears for the future. President Abbas, she said, simply cannot and will not control the Al Aqsa Brigades. "They have their own agenda," she said. "They are out of control."

Fawzi Tirawi, the Balata Al Aqsa Brigade leader said his men will reject any attempt by President Abbas - or anyone else - to remove them from the streets or disarm them.

"We're the best field picture for Fatah in the Palestinian streets," Tirawi said, "We're Fatah's only safety net, especially now," he said, arguing that Fatah wouldn't have lost in Gaza if only the local security forces hadn't tried to rein in the Al Aqsa Brigades.

Tirawi was defiant when asked what the militants will do if President Abbas tries to disarm them or make them part of the regular Palestinian security forces:

"We will reject immediately any call from our leadership to be removed from the streets or disarmed. On the contrary, what I'm asking our leaders [to do] is to find ways to support us and keep us healthy and strong!" he said.

While Tirawi is focused on the West Bank, he said Fatah-allied gunmen haven't given up on re-asserting control in Gaza. Hamas has shown all its cards, he said, and "we now know who they are, where they are and how they operate."

Tirawi claims secret Fatah cells are already being organized to enter Gaza and take the fight back to Hamas.

Q&A: Hamas and Fatah

The official Hamas emblem shows two crossed swords in front of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The mosque is framed by two Palestinian flags with the phrases, in Arabic, "God is Great" and "Muhammad is the prophet of Allah." hide caption

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The official Fatah emblem depicts two fists holding rifles, with a hand grenade in between. In the background is a map of Israel and the occupied territories. hide caption

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Hamas and Fatah are rival Palestinian factions that have attacked Israel in the past. Here's a look at the two organizations:

What is Hamas?

Hamas, an Islamist group, has pursued a policy of "armed resistance" against Israel — carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilians — while also extending social-welfare programs to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. Hamas' official name is Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement).

What is Fatah?

Fatah was the first exile group to launch attacks against Israel. Fatah's official name is Harakat al Tahrir al Falastini (Palestinian Liberation Movement). Fatah is the dominant member of the greater Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

What are the origins of these groups?

Hamas was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, both of whom have since been killed by Israel.

Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organization with branches throughout the Arab world. In 1988, Hamas wrote its charter, which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and swears to "raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine." The charter is still in effect today.

However, Hamas member Ismail Haniya — named prime minister under the unity government — has spoken of a possible long-term truce with Israel, if Israel withdraws from territory occupied after the 1967 war.

Fatah was founded by the late Yasser Arafat and a small group of Palestinian nationalists in the late 1950s. The group is a member of the PLO, a loose umbrella group of a number of Palestinian organizations founded in Cairo in the mid-1960s.

Fatah quickly became the most powerful member of the PLO, which Arafat also led.

What does the PLO think of Israel?

In 1993 the PLO officially renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist. In exchange, PLO leaders were allowed to return from exile in Tunisia and recognized as the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. They were also allowed to set up Palestinian security forces. Although the PLO has officially renounced terrorism, some of its member organizations have been accused of or have claimed responsibility for continued attacks.

The PLO was initially based largely in Jordan. But after fighting between PLO guerrillas and the Jordanian army in 1970, a conflict known as Black September, the PLO was forced out of Jordan. Most of the guerrillas — and Yasser Arafat — settled in Lebanon. The PLO then launched frequent attacks on Israel from their Lebanese bases, prompting two Israeli invasions of Lebanon — in 1978 and 1982.

What approach does Hamas take toward Israel?

Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel. Its armed resistance has been carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilian buses, nightclubs and other venues. As a result the United States, Israel and the European Union have labeled it a "terrorist organization." Human Rights Watch has also criticized Hamas for its attacks on civilians.

Hamas' main claim for support among Palestinians comes from its provision of social welfare services that neither the Israelis nor Fatah provide. From its inception, Hamas has funded and developed an elaborate network of schools, orphanages, health clinics and other social services that have given it reach into every sector of its populations.

How is Fatah viewed as compared to Hamas?

Despite its violent past, Fatah is now seen as the more moderate Palestinian party. While the group's constitution also calls for the destruction of Israel, the group falls under the PLO, which has renounced terrorism. Fatah's leadership of the Palestinian Authority was seen as corrupt and inept by many Palestinians, which is the major reason for its loss of seats in the government in the 2006 election.

How have Hamas and Fatah fared politically?

In January 2006, Palestinian voters in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem voted for a new Palestinian legislature. Hamas won a major victory, taking 74 of the 132 seats, in an election deemed fair and honest by international observers. Its rival, the once-dominant Fatah party, criticized for ineffectiveness and corruption, took only 45 seats.

Fatah still controls the presidency, the highest elected position in the government. Mahmoud Abbas has held the position since January 2005. Fatah also controls roughly 70,000 police and security forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These forces regularly clash with Hamas loyalists.

The surprise political victory in 2006 gave Hamas control of the Palestinian government. It also created a conflict with Israel and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas refuses to accept Israel's right to exist and says it will not honor pre-existing treaties signed by the Palestinian Authority. In light of this, Israel, with the support of the United States and the European Union, launched a financial boycott of the Hamas-led government. Israel refused to pay the Palestinian Authority its monthly trade taxes, which Israel collects, and Washington has sought to freeze all bank transfers to the Palestinian Authority. The results deprived the authority's 150,000 civil servants of salaries for a time, but aid has continued to flow from the European Union and the United States via a specially devised "mechanism" that bypasses the Palestinian government.

How have recent events impacted the relationship between Hamas and Fatah?

In June, Hamas took control over the Gaza Strip, destroying the headquarters of President Abbas as well as other government buildings. As a result of the violence, Abbas dissolved the unity government, a power-sharing deal between the two groups that was signed on Feb. 9, 2007, and swore in an emergency government. He forced out the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who is a member of Hamas. Abbas named Salam Fayyad, a Western-backed independent lawmaker, to the post.

Hamas leaders have condemned the move, making a decision not to recognize the changes, and insisted that the Fatah-Hamas unity government formed in March remains in charge of the Palestinian Authority. Haniyeh has claimed that he continues to hold the position of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Leaders from the United States, Europe and Israel have spoken out in support of Abbas and his new government — and plan to restore aid to the Palestinian people.