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

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Come this Monday, Egypt's president will host a meeting between the prime minister of Israel and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Also attending will be the king of Jordan. The high-level summit is a sign of the international support for Abbas, who leads the secular Fatah, following the takeover of the Gaza Strip by the Islamist Hamas. Abbas must now show that he can control the West Bank, especially members of Fatah's armed wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from the West Bank city of Nablus.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Fausi Terawi(ph) sips mint tea from a glass cup in a sparse Nablus office. Next to him, muscular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade gunmen clutch their American-made M-16s; 9 mm handguns are stuffed into the waistline of their jeans. The al-Aqsa Brigades say their reason for being is to fight the Israelis. But these days, says Terawi, a brigade leader here, the focus is all on Hamas. Terawi says his gunmen are still infuriated over what he calls Hamas's murderous attacks in Gaza. In the West Bank, he says, were Fatah's well-armed protection against any further Hamas advance.

Mr. FAUSI TERAWI (Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade): (Through Translator) The political echelon of Fatah can say what it likes about not repeating the bloodshed here in Gaza. 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.

WESTERVELT: To do that, Terawi says proudly, the al-Aqsa Brigades are systematically disrupting the daily work of Hamas institutions, undermining Hamas's financial backers, and intimidating Hamas members. Here in Nablus, that's meant fire bombings, shootings, kidnappings and death threats.

Wearing a tightly wrapped headscarf and blue jeans under her head-to-toe abaya(ph), or long dress, 39-year-old Elud al-Masri(ph) kicks open the charred front door of the Alzadur(ph) Cultural Center. That's the non-profit Islamist women's center al-Masri ran 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. Burned spools of brightly colored thread from sewing classes shared the charred floor with destroyed computers and a pile of vinyl records - Arabic folk songs oddly melted into Paul Anka 45s, "Love Me Warm and Tender". Al-Masri steps over the remains, visibly shaken. Her now trashed cultural center used to provide vocational training and career counseling for more than 200 local women.

Ms. HALUD AL-MASRI (Deputy Mayor, Nablus): (Through translator) I am in shock. I am angry. This destruction is not only a destruction to a building, to resources. It's a destruction to human possibilities. The women that were working in this center were the breadwinners of their family.

WESTERVELT: A few weeks ago, al-Masri's cultural center was raided by the Israel Defense Forces. Now, al-Masri says, she's far more worried about Fatah gunmen than Israeli soldiers. In fact al-Masri can't stay here very long. She's on the run in the city she was elected to help lead just two short 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.

Ms. AL-MASRI: (Through translator) 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 it or else. All these are messages that carry in them dangerous threats.

WESTERVELT: Relations between Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank, al-Masri says coldly, will never be the same. The factional bloodshed in Gaza exposed here what she calls the disingenuous and superficial relations during the months of supposed factional unity and cooperation. Al-Masri also fears for the future. President Mahmoud Abbas, she says, simply cannot and will not control the al-Aqsa Brigades. They have their own agenda, al-Masri says. They're out of control.

Fausi Terawi, the Nablus al-Aqsa Brigade leader, says his men will vigorously fight any attempt by President Abbas or anyone else to disarm them. We're the best field picture for Fatah, Terawi says. We're Fatah's only safety net, especially now, he adds, because the Fatah-Hamas struggle is ongoing. Fatah wouldn't have lost in Gaza, he argues, if the Fatah Security Forces there hadn't tried to rein in the al-Aqsa Brigades. Terawi is defiant when asked what the militants will do if President Abbas tries to make them part of the regular security forces.

Mr. TERAWI: (Through translator) 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 is to find ways to support us and keep us healthy and strong.

WESTERVELT: While Terawi is focused on the West Bank, he says the Fatah-allied gunmen have not given up on reasserting control in Gaza. Hamas has shown all its cards, he says. We know who they are, where they are, and how they operate now. We're already organizing secret Fatah cells, Terawi claims, which will try to enter Gaza and take the fight back to Hamas.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Nablus.

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