Friday, January 23, 2009
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Ramallah, West Bank - Hundreds of Hamas supporters, including journalists, university students and Muslim leaders, have been beaten, arrested and tortured across the West Bank as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas takes revenge on Hamas for its crackdown on his Fatah supporters in Gaza, Hamas activists say.
The move has deepened growing divisions between Abbas' Fatah party and the Hamas movement that won parliamentary elections in Gaza before seizing total control of the territory in a 2007 bloody coup.
The reported West Bank sweep and its alarming consequences for Palestinian unity pose a sharp challenge to President Obama, who named former Sen. George Mitchell Thursday as his special envoy to the Middle East and pledged to aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Hamas has admitted arresting, executing and torturing Fatah "spies" it has accused of aiding Israel during the three-week invasion of Gaza. Hamas leaders also have branded Abbas as an Israeli collaborator.
The arrests of Hamas supporters in the West Bank began during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, after Abbas imposed strict limits on pro-Hamas demonstrations, according to numerous press reports.
'Emirate of darkness'
"We won't allow Hamas to destroy our national project regardless of the price," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Abbas, who accused Hamas of seeking to establish an "emirate of darkness" in the Gaza Strip.
Khalid Amayreh, a journalist for the Palestine Information Center who has been critical of Abbas' policies, said he spent 55 hours in a rancid, dark, windowless cell in the Preventive Security Force headquarters in Hebron after being invited for coffee Sunday with a local security chief.
"I was arrested for saying things that should not have been said in an interview with a local satellite TV station," Amayreh said. "They thought I was vilifying the Palestinian Authority, distorting its image and inciting people against it."
Although he was not physically mistreated, Amayreh said he heard screams of another prisoner in a nearby cell and saw 10 men being led away with hoods over their heads.
"In Hebron alone they have arrested 56 people," Amayreh said, estimating that between 500 and 600 people had been arrested during the police crackdown. "The Palestinian Authority is very nervous these days."
In Tulkarem, Islamboli Badir, the son of a slain extremist leader named Riad Badir, required medical treatment after electric shock torture by Palestinian General Intelligence, according to Hamas sources.
Sheikh Omar Manna, the imam of the largest mosque in Tulkarem and Sheikh Fayad al-Aghbar, a prominent Hamas figure in Nablus, were arrested on charges of financial crimes.
Schoolteacher Hussein Dib and university students Hani Barabrah and Ala al-Aaraj were arrested immediately after being released from an Israeli jail.
A call for unity
Despite the tit-for-tat arrests and beatings, both sides called for unity Thursday.
Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, told the Associated Press that the alternative is a permanent rift that will destroy Palestinians' dreams for a state of their own.
In Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called for reconciliation, but insisted on pursuing resistance against Israel and having sole control over all international donations to rebuild Gaza, saying Fatah cannot be trusted to handle the aid.
"My impression from Mashaal's speech is that he just closed the door for a national unity government and dialogue," said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian minister and member of the Palestinian People's Party who edits the Israeli-Palestinian debate Web site bitterlemons.com. "He put conditions of the kind that cannot be met, practically speaking, by the Palestinian Authority. ... It was not the language of a person who wants dialogue."
Khatib said Fatah and Hamas are so deeply divided that they could only be united by international pressure from Syria, Iran and Qatar on Hamas and the United States on Fatah.
'An irreversible situation'
"I think we have reached an irreversible situation," Khatib said. "This new U.S. administration ... could have a major impact on the internal Palestinian situation. Washington very much has a role to play."
Palestinian political analyst Khaled Abu Toameh says Obama could start by pressuring Abbas to rein in security forces trained and financed by the United States and the European Union in a program led by U.S. Gen. Keith Dayton.
The United States and EU are "the same people who are demanding that the Palestinian Authority promote democracy and freedom," said Abu Toameh.