Ashkelon, Israel— Fatah fighters newly exiled from Gaza this week lay wounded in the orthopedic ward of Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital under the guard of M-16-toting Israeli soldiers, who consider them terrorists. Despite that, these fighters consider the gunmen of Hamas a greater threat.
“In spite of the animosity between us, the Jews are more sympathetic and more humane toward us than Hamas,” explained Atef Hilles, 31.
The Fatah security men hail from the Hilles clan, a powerful and feared Gaza family that has insisted on maintaining a sort of autonomy in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shaja’iyeh. But early last week, Hamas representatives accused Adel Hilles, the No. 2 man, of planning a car bombing that killed five Hamas terrorists and an innocent bystander, a young girl. But when the family refused Hamas’ demands to turn over Adel, Hamas forces struck.
After hours of rocket, mortar and tunnel attacks on Saturday that killed 11 and injured dozens – most of them from Fatah—a group of about 200 from the Hilles clan made a break for the nearby Israeli border terminal. They carried a white flag and ran for their lives as Hamas bullets flew around them.
“We said we will not give in and will not surrender,” Hilles said. “Surrendering meant getting killed.”
The Fatah men accused Hamas of using the bombing to strengthen its hold over the Gaza Strip. Their resolve to defend their turf ended with the massive Hamas assault—firepower that is normally aimed at Israel .
“Any resistance with weapons is over,” said Hilles, who described Hamas as a “mafia” and a “gang.”
“We achieved only destruction and ruins – the opposite of what we desired,” he added.
Officials from Fatah’s Palestinian Authority made their rounds of the injured, caressing their hair and shaking their hands. Alaa Yaghi, a Fatah legislator also exiled from Gaza last year, said he knew several of the fighters personally.
“They are from my hometown,” he said. “Hamas doesn’t want any kind of power in Gaza that might stand against them.”
Yaghi acknowledged that Fatah had next to no influence in Gaza.
“We know we are very weak in Gaza and can’t change the situation, but we don’t want the situation to get worse,” he said. He added that he still supports rapprochement talks with Hamas, because that is the only way Palestinians could resolve the rift.
“The majority of people support it,” Yaghi said. “We have two ways, either fighting or talking to people.”
Back at the bedside of Atef Hilles, the 31-year-old security officer said he hadn’t much time to ponder that it would probably be quite some time before he sees his pregnant wife and two children again. For now, he expected to be resettled in the West Bank, but beyond that nothing is sure.
“My future right now is blurry,” he said.
Not all of the 180 others who fled with him were lucky enough to remain in Israel. Of the 22 men who were hospitalized with wounds, 16 remained there at the beginning of the week. About three dozen were returned to the Gaza Strip after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Israel to send them all back after at first requesting that Israel grant them asylum.
But when Hamas gunmen arrested the first group of men returned to Gaza, human rights groups persuaded Israeli officials not to return all of the rest and Israel convinced Abbas to let some of them remain. Although several dozen were returned to Gaza, 88 of the men were sent to Jericho and questioned by Israeli intelligence officials who suspect them of being among the terrorists who had shot at or fired rockets at Israeli soldiers and civilians.
A senior Hamas official in Gaza told the Associated Press Tuesday that if Fatah continued arresting Hamas members in the West Bank, his Islamic group would seize control of the West Bank just as it had routed Fatah a year ago from Gaza. Both Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank have been arresting dozens of political opponents amid reports of beatings of prisoners by both sides.
In the meantime, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were to continue with their peace talks this week and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to arrive in two weeks to keep the peace process moving.
Published reports said Rice would press the Israelis and Palestinians to publish a document spelling out their points of agreement and what gaps remained to be resolved by their successors. Olmert, Abbas and President George W. Bush are all said to want to leave a legacy that shows they made some progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But all three now recognize that a final resolution is not likely by the end of the year, as originally envisioned at the Annapolis summit last November.
Against this backdrop looms an Israeli-U.S. dispute involving Fulbright grants to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Under intense U.S. pressure, Israel finally consented this week to permitting the last three of seven Fulbright scholars to leave the Gaza Strip to obtain American visas and then fly to the U.S. But in the end, the visas were either denied or revoked after Israel provided the U.S. with information about the three that suggested they posed a security risk.
“The Bush administration in its dying days is [pressuring Israel] to get something from the Israeli-Arab negotiations,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “The Israelis are saying we have security concerns. The U.S.’s first response was that it did not believe there were security issues. But after data was sent to Washington, they said there might be something there. … There is certainly a suspicion that they [the Fulbright scholars] have a Hamas connection.”
He pointed out that Hamas political leaders must clear all Palestinians before they can apply for American scholarships that would enable them to leave the Gaza Strip.
(The New York Times said that of the other four Fulbright scholars who were granted American visas, three are in the U.S. and the fourth dropped out of the program just hours before her departure because she did not want to give up her teaching position in Gaza.)
“This story illustrates all of the tensions of the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” Steinberg said. “The U.S. want to show positive results for PR and that is always a recipe for failure. “
The Palestinian infighting, the request of Fatah gunmen for asylum in Israel, and Rice’s arrival to press two lame-duck political leaders who have little authority to reach a peace agreement “is a huge disconnect,” he observed.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon threatened this week to shoot down any Israeli aircraft that cross into Lebanese airspace. Israeli Air Force planes routinely conduct over-flights for surveillance purposes. United Nations troops in southern Lebanon were instructed this week to retrieve by force if necessary any Israeli pilot shot down over Lebanon who is captured by Hezbollah forces. They were told not to interfere if Lebanese troops recovered the pilot.
“If they shoot down an Israeli plane, there will be another war,” Steinberg said. “Israel has good counter-measures [to prevent that], and the Israeli Air Force would take out the position from which the missile was fired. “
He noted that Israel would expect UN forces to take out that missile position and that if they failed to act it might lead to friction between Israel and the UN. But Steinberg said the fact that the Italian, French and Spanish governments whose troops comprise the UN deployment ordered their men to fight Hezbollah troops if they captured a downed Israeli pilot indicated the Europeans are hardening their stance against Hezbollah.
The Hezbollah warning about over-flights came as Israel announced the arrest last month of a 29-year-old Israeli Arab on charges of spying for Hezbollah. It is alleged that while a student in Germany, he conducted missions for Hezbollah after being recruited by a Lebanese Hezbollah agent.
The indictment reportedly said he was paid several thousand euros and asked to recruit as spies other Israelis who lived abroad. In addition, he was to return to Israel after completing his studies and get a job in an Israeli hospital to gather information about hospitalized Israeli soldiers and security personnel.
Josh Mitnick is Israel correspondent. Stewart Ain is a staff writer.