Rising Palestinian bitterness borders on civil war

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAZA CITY -- In the dusty slums of the Gaza Strip, Palestinians are turning on each other as the promises of peace sour, and again there is talk of a Palestinian civil war.

Police under Yasser Arafat continued mass arrests yesterday in hopes of stopping attacks on Israelis by extremist Palestinians. Officials gave various figures for the number of arrests, ranging from 150 to 300.

"This time we're serious," said Nabil Abu-Rudinah, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority.

Leaders of an opposition group, the Islamic fundamentalists PTC known as Hamas, warned that the crackdown could create an "explosion," and vowed they will refuse a police ultimatum to give up their guns.

The Palestinians have patched up conflicts in the past to avoid fighting among the factions, and they may again. But there are ominous signs that the split between the authority and its opponents could lead to violence on a large scale.

Moussa Arafat, the chief of Palestinian intelligence, said his home was the target of gunshots twice this week. Khalid al-Qidrah, the Palestinian chief prosecutor, also said there was gunfire -- though without casualties -- from opposition members resisting arrest.

And the new Palestinian military "security court" handed down long sentences against members of another opposition group, Islamic Jihad. The prosecutor said yesterday that one defendant, sentenced to serve 20 years to life, had recruited the two suicide bombers who killed 21 Israelis at an army base bus stop Jan. 22.

"He put in their minds that they will be in paradise and this is the best way to see God," said Mr. Qidrah, the attorney general for the Palestinian Authority.

The family of the man, Omar Shallah, 29, denied it.

"It's not true," said his mother, Senora Shallah, 58. "If my son has to serve 25 years I will announce from the mosques that we need civil war. If I had my way, I'd make revolution."

Palestinians have a long history of feuding among various

factions, but the peace agreement between Israel and Mr. Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization has brought the divisions within the Gaza Strip to a boil.

Islamic fundamentalists reject the agreement, and have stepped their lethal attacks on Israelis. Israel and the United States have pressured Mr. Arafat to crack down on the fundamentalists, who in turn have vowed further violence.

Public opinion in Gaza, once solidly on the side of Mr. Arafat amid hopes for benefits from peace, is now sliding toward the extremists. Gazans have seen few advantages of peace: Their economy has collapsed and their standard of living has plummeted.

"The general situation is very bad. People are out of work. They blame the Palestinian Authority for having no solution," said Yunis Awad, 70, in the Sheik Radwan section of the Gaza Strip.

"Maybe there will be a confrontation between all the people and the Palestinian Authority," agreed Mohammed el-Masri, 37, who owns a sewing machine factory in Sheik Radwan. "There's no justice, no law."

Mr. Arafat's officials say they are in fact enforcing the law by rounding up opponents suspected of plotting violence.

"There can be only one law, only one authority," said Mr. Abu-Rudinah, the Palestinian Authority's spokesman. "We tried to contain them politically. We tried to talk to them. But we just can't let ourselves go into civil war."

Mr. Arafat has promised before to crack down, Mr. Abu-Rudinah acknowledged -- "but now things are different. Everyone is paying the price for their [attacks]. The whole Gaza Strip is closed. The whole Gaza Strip is suffering."

Following the suicide bomb attacks that began a year ago, Israel has instituted a series of closures, which have cut off Palestinians from their jobs and from trade.

Yesterday, Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal said all Palestinians will be barred from entering Israel from the West Bank or Gaza Strip from today until Sunday, the first days of the Jewish Passover holiday.

The crackdown by the Palestinian Authority began after two bomb attacks last Sunday killed seven Israeli soldiers and an American student near Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad were said to be in hiding, and Palestinian police raided their homes.

Mr. Qidrah, the prosecutor, said the militant Muslims have one month to turn in rifles and automatic weapons.

Imad Falouji, editor of a Hamas weekly newspaper and an activist who is close to its military wing, said yesterday that the opposition groups would refuse to be disarmed.

About 50 Palestinian police came to his house Monday night to arrest him, he said. He was not there. The police took papers and overturned furniture in their search, but have not returned, he said yesterday in an interview at his home.

Mr. Falouji said the authority would not be able to stop Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers.

"The Israeli settlements are targets for Hamas. Our military actions against the settlements will never stop," he said. And he predicted the Palestinian police will not risk a direct confrontation.

Mr. Qidrah, the prosecutor, said yesterday that those arrested -- this week will be investigated while they are in jail, and then decisions will be made as to whether they will be formally charged.

"Perhaps we will release a lot of them," he conceded. He said about 35 persons from previous sweeps have been charged and face trials in the new security court set up by Mr. Arafat.

The first two trials in the security court this week pronounced the sentence on Shallah, and a 15-year prison term on Samir Ali al-Jedi.

The prosecutor said Mr. al-Jedi had helped recruit young boys to prepare themselves to be suicide bombers. As part of a test of their suitability, Mr. Jedi put boys in graves and closed coffin lids on them, he said.

Shallah's parents said the military court procedure smacked of dictatorship. They did not know of their son's hasty trial until they heard the sentence on the radio.

"Is this a government or a mockery?" asked the convicted man's father, Abdul Shallah, 64, as he stirred the coals of a fire for tea at the family home. "When the Israelis arrested him, at least they told us we should get a lawyer. The Israelis were a million times better than this."

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