Tuesday, 22 February 2005

Time is running out, militant warns

Fragile calm will shatter if Mideast peace process stalls, Fatah fighter says

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Special to The Globe and Mail

GAZA CITY -- Abu Thaer is a hunted man. He wears a hood and carries a Kalashnikov assault rifle. He meets at secret locations through trusted intermediaries. He says his proudest moment was a deadly suicide bombing in Jerusalem in January of 2004, in which 10 bus passengers were killed.

Abu Thaer commands the Ayman Judeh cell, the Gaza City chapter of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Fatah, named after a former leader who was killed in an Israeli helicopter missile strike in January, 2004.

For now, the group has agreed to a period of "calm" so that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas can try to restart the Middle East peace process. But time is running out. Abu Thaer accuses Israel of violating the fragile ceasefire and says his patience is nearly ended.

"We committed to continue the calm for four to six months, on condition that the Israeli government is committed to calm the situation on all fronts," he said in an exclusive interview at a Gaza City safe house.

"The Israelis are breaking this commitment, daily and continuously. We are not going to be very patient if they continue doing this. It's impossible to see the blood of our people and to remain silent."

Men like Abu Thaer and his colleagues will determine the future of the fragile new calm, and probably also the fate of Mr. Abbas's administration. If they decide the Israelis or their new leader are not moving fast enough and renew their mortar, rocket and suicide attacks on Israel, the new-found hope in the Middle East could unravel quickly.

Israel denies it has violated the ceasefire, hammered out at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit two weeks ago. On the contrary, Israeli officials say, hundreds of Palestinian workers and merchants are once again being allowed across the border to work in Israel, and yesterday, 500 Palestinian prisoners were released amid scenes of widespread joy.

Ten of the released prisoners went home to Gaza, where they were escorted by a convoy of cars flying the yellow flags of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and trucks crowded with men firing their Kalashnikovs into the air in celebration.

Israel plans to release another 400 prisoners and has begun preparations to withdraw all settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in July.

But Abu Thaer wants more.

"We have given Abu Mazen a chance to calm the situation and we have laid down conditions so in the future we will be able to achieve a hudna or ceasefire," he said, using Mr. Abbas's popular nom de guerre.

Those conditions include the formal announcement by both sides of a ceasefire, which Israel has not yet made, and a commitment to release all 7,500 Palestinian prisoners still held in Israeli jails.

"We have accepted what Abu Mazen has done in small steps and welcomed it, but we want the release of all prisoners. I repeat: all of them," he said.

The Palestinian leader will have to persuade Israel that the release of all the prisoners will not swell the ranks of the militants. But that is not the only fight on his hands. Mr. Abbas must also persuade his own people, including men like Abu Thaer, that he is a strong leader.

Abu Thaer and his men say they voted for Mr. Abbas because of his promise to reform the corruption-riddled Palestinian Authority and they will insist on those reforms if he is to retain their support.

But yesterday, Mr. Abbas failed to win approval for his new cabinet after the Palestinian Legislative Council argued that several "corrupt" ministers remained after an extensive government reshuffle.

Mr. Abbas has also proposed that militants from the al-Aqsa Brigades and their counterparts in Hamas and Islamic Jihad be incorporated into the official Palestinian security services who are now deployed throughout the Gaza Strip, with the specific mission of halting attacks by those groups.

But a straw poll of Abu Thaer and six of his comrades showed little support for that option. While the men said they support the deployment and the new sense of security it has brought to ordinary Palestinians, only three of the seven said they would join the official security forces, and then only after a final peace treaty was signed with Israel.

"Resistance will continue as long as the occupation continues," said Abu Thaer, insisting that Israel must also quit the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

"We are brothers, we are partners in our homeland. If the Israeli violations continue, a son of the Palestinian Authority will not stand against the sons of the people here. He will stand beside the resistance, to defend the sons of his people."

But Abu Thaer said that for the first time, he saw some hope of peace emerging after four years of violence and bloodshed.

"I heard [U.S. President] George Bush say he has a vision for peace of two states. We hope that he will achieve what he is talking about. It's up to the Israeli government. If they are serious about peace, they have to evacuate all settlements and withdraw completely from all Palestinian land.

"We do see a change in the Israelis. We do not know how far this change goes, but we are hopeful. Maybe it will lead to peace, to George Bush's vision."

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