NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) - Ahmed Alhaj Ali’s tumultuous week started with his detention by Palestinian forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and ended with him shuttling from safe house to safe house to evade Israeli arrest.
Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip three weeks ago, triggering a crackdown by Fatah-led security forces and militias on the Islamist group in the occupied West Bank, Hamas leaders like Alhaj Ali, a member of the Palestinian parliament, have been hiding from Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Forces loyal to Abbas have detained at least 299 Hamas supporters in the West Bank in the last three weeks, according to a Hamas official. Security sources confirmed dozens of arrests and said some of the detainees were found with large caches of guns and ammunition and would be tried.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said 130 remained in custody as of Thursday. Security sources in the West Bank put the number still held at “dozens”. Senior Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo dismissed suggestions detainees may be harmed: “There are no illegal arrests. None of them has been mistreated,” he said.
Hamas has protested at the arrests and warns of retaliation. Some of its supporters were taken away not by uniformed security personnel but by masked gunmen linked to Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militant movement and other splinter groups.
There have been similar reports of intimidation in the Gaza Strip targeting Fatah. Hamas gunmen have brought members of Fatah, including the daughter of Abbas’s intelligence chief, in for questioning. On Thursday Hamas deployed its forces to try to prevent some pro-Abbas public employees from reporting to work.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it has been visiting detainees in the West Bank and Gaza but, in line with the organization’s standard practice, would not say whether any concerns about their treatment had been raised.
In the West Bank, some detainees said they were freed only after signing pledges not to join Hamas’s armed wings and not to conspire against the government. Hamas is shunned by Israel and Western powers for refusing to renounce violence against Israel.
Over the past year, Israel has already arrested nearly half of Hamas’s parliamentary majority bloc, making it virtually impossible for the body to reach a quorum to hold a vote on Abbas’s decision to sack the Hamas-led government and appoint a new administration headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
NO LONGER ‘COMRADES’
Already a frequent flashpoint for violence between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces, Nablus has become the focus in Fatah’s campaign against Hamas in the West Bank.
“Before Gaza, we dealt with Hamas activists as comrades in arms. Now we know we were wrong to consider them partners, friends,” said Akram al-Rajoub, who heads the Fatah-dominated Preventive Security service in the city of 200,000.
The Preventive Security building was plastered with posters depicting top Fatah militant Samih al-Madhoun, who was killed by Hamas after last month’s fighting in Gaza, and of a Hamas gunman stepping on a picture of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
An aide to Rajoub showed visitors a video aired on Hamas television showing Madhoun in his death throes, blinking and gasping for air as gunmen stood over his bullet-riddled chest.
The West Bank crackdown is increasing pressure on “zakat” charity committees that support the network of Islamic schools and health clinics which helped fuel Hamas’s rise to power.
In Nablus, 20 gunmen pushed their way into a dairy funded by a zakat, but those managing the plant persuaded them to leave.
“We told them this factory was not for Hamas but was for the Palestinian people,” said Abdul Raheem Hanbali, who heads the zakat committee and runs the dairy. “We are not afraid.”
The Islamic Solidarity health clinic in Nablus, which is funded by the local zakat, has seen a 20 percent drop in patient visits since Hamas’s seizure of Gaza. “These patients, they want to avoid any charges ... that they are Hamas or supporters of Hamas,” Hafez Sadder, the clinic’s director, said.
Rajoub said his men were targeting militants, not charities, and added: “There is absolutely no cooperation with Israel in our activities.” Israel has seized militants from both factions.
Alhaj Ali and Ahmed Doleh, an assistant to the interior minister in the Hamas-led government dismissed by Abbas, were arrested by Abbas’s men in Nablus on Monday. Alhaj Ali was freed two hours later but Doleh remains in custody.
Since his release, Alhaj Ali has been on the run: “I can’t tell you where I am because I‘m hiding from the Israelis,” he said by phone. He tries to switch safe houses every three days.
At least 26 Hamas supporters remain in custody at a Nablus prison run by Abbas’s Force 17. Prison officials would not allow journalists to see the detainees but said they were receiving adequate food and medicine and were being treated like “guests”.
“We don’t ask them why they belong to Hamas,” Rajoub said. “Our questions are based on getting concrete information about weapons and any evidence that they threaten the authority.”
Yazid Khader, a Hamas member who also served in the dismissed government, said Hamas’ patience in the West Bank was growing thin and that the group’s leaders may not be able to prevent all of its activists from striking back at Fatah.
“(Hamas) leaders are lying low not out of fear,” Khader said. “We’re trying to avoid a confrontation with the Authority. (But) we can’t control everyone completely.”
Another source close to the Hamas leadership, warned: “If this goes on, it will open the gates of hell.”
Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza