Fatah Gunmen Assert Authority in West Bank

An Israeli military vehicle takes part in a raid Thursday in the West Bank city of Nablus, where Fatah militiamen have sought to drive out local Hamas politicians.
An Israeli military vehicle takes part in a raid Thursday in the West Bank city of Nablus, where Fatah militiamen have sought to drive out local Hamas politicians. (By Nasser Ishtayeh -- Associated Press)

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 8, 2007

NABLUS, West Bank -- The anonymous call on Hafez Shaheen's mobile phone came as an impolite reminder.

"You were at city hall today," the voice warned. "You are not to go back again."

Shaheen is the acting mayor of this West Bank city, elected two years ago on a ticket sponsored by Hamas. The armed Islamic movement trounced forces from the rival secular Fatah party on June 14 to take control of the Gaza Strip, and the reverberations were felt instantly here by Shaheen and his 12 Hamas colleagues on the 15-seat city council.

The next day, scores of Fatah gunmen arrived at city hall with a simple order: Hamas officials should leave and not return. But Shaheen, a bespectacled engineering professor, was back at his office within days and continues to ignore subsequent telephoned threats by Fatah's armed wing.

"I didn't take it very seriously," he said Thursday between signing papers, taking calls from a German development bank and entertaining a visiting U.N. delegation. "But I can't tell the others to come back. I can't take that responsibility because I don't control the street."

The Hamas military conquest of Gaza politically severed the two territories, which are envisioned as cornerstones of a future Palestinian state. Since then, the West Bank has emerged as a mirror opposite of Gaza. Here Fatah militiamen have asserted themselves in the streets, and Hamas has moved into the shadows.

Yet increasingly in Nablus and across the West Bank there are signs, at least at the local level, that the initial fears of broad factional violence are fading. Political life is slowly returning to something like normal. From Bethlehem to Qalqilyah to this most populous West Bank city, Hamas-affiliated local council members such as Shaheen are returning cautiously to the city halls they had abandoned, in some cases defying death threats to do so.

The Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Local Government Affairs sent out a letter in late June ordering all elected council members to return to work, and many Hamas officials are treating the written demand as tacit protection from the Fatah-dominated ministry.

The threat of factional strife remains, however. Many Palestinians believe new elections are the only way to resolve the dispute. But elections have not yet been called. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader, first suggested new elections in December as a way to end the political crisis with Hamas.

Fatah's electoral prospects are highly uncertain, in part because of enduring divisions within the party between Abbas's founding generation and a disaffected younger one clamoring for power. Hamas has slipped in most opinion polls since winning January 2006 parliamentary elections, which gave it day-to-day control of the Palestinian Authority, but its support has been consistently underestimated in past surveys.

"A vote may make things worse, and it may make things better," said Victor Batarseh, 72, the Christian mayor of Bethlehem who is not aligned with Hamas or Fatah. "But we should always go to the ballot instead of bullets."

The day after Hamas seized total control of Gaza in June, some Fatah gunmen came for Khaled Saada. Saada, a Bethlehem councilman elected from the Hamas-sponsored candidate list known as Change and Reform, was not at home. The men searched his house and detained two of his brothers, one of whom belongs to Fatah. The brothers were released unharmed a few days later.

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