Israel transfers Fatah Gaza refugees to West Bank

Israel Materials 4 August 2008 19:46 (UTC +04:00)

Israel transferred to the West Bank Monday scores of Palestinian Fatah activists who fled internecine fighting in the Gaza Strip over the weekend, overturning a decision to send them back to the salient where they could face arrest, reported dpa.

However, the activists are being transferred to Jericho, and not to Ramallah, as originally planned.

The decision to transfer them follows consultations between Israeli officials and the office, in the West Bank, of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Some 188 Fatah members fled to Israel, but at Abbas' request 35 of them were returned to the Gaza Strip, where they were immediately arrested by the Hamas administration which rules the enclave.

The Israeli military protested that sending the men back to the Strip would endanger their lives, prompting Israel to contact Abbas once again and the new arrangement to be worked out.

A statement Monday morning by the Israeli Defence Ministry said the repatriation to the Gaza Strip was being halted after information had been received that the returnees were being arrested "and their lives are in immediate danger."

Some 23 Palestinians who fled the salient and who were wounded in the fighting are currently being treated in Israeli hospitals.

The latest Fatah-Hamas fighting in the Gaza Strip was sparked by a car bomb on July 25, which killed five Hamas militants and a small girl. Hamas blamed Fatah for the blast and launched a crackdown, which in turn led to the latest violence between the two rival groups.

The current clashes are the worst internecine fighting since June 2007, when Hamas militants routed forces loyal to Abbas and seized security control of the salient.

Abbas reacted to the Hamas takeover by dissolving a Fatah-Hamas unity government and firing Hamas leader Ismail Haniya from his post as premier.

Haniya rejected his dismissal and continues to call himself prime minister. Abbas, however appointed a new premier, independent economist Salam Fayyad, but his government failed to win ratification from the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council.

Many of those who fled Gaza belong to the Helles clan, which has ties to Fatah, and, according to Jerusalem Post analyst Khaled Abu Toameh, ran a training base in the Strip and also set up small factories to manufacture various types of weapons.

Quoting "sources in the Gaza Strip," Abu Toameh also noted that members of the clan were also involved in criminal activities.

"Bringing dozens of these clan members into the West Bank would have caused a big headache for Abbas, who is still facing difficulties in reining in numerous Fatah gangs that are continuing to roam the streets of West Bank cities and villages," he wrote.

Officially, however West-Bank based Palestinian Authority officials said the reason behind their initial refusal to allow the 188 to enter the West Bank stemmed from a desire "not to encourage other residents of the Gaza Strip to leave."

But another reason could also be the unstated animosity many in the West Bank feel toward those from the Gaza Strip.

Many Gazans who fled the internecine fighting in the Strip for the West Bank one year ago still find it difficult to rent apartments in Ramallah, and in 1994 a decision by then-President Yasser Arafat to bring police from the salient to a number of West Bank cities sparked violent protests.

In Ramallah, meanwhile security has been increased around the house of acting Premier Salam Fayyad, which was targeted in a drive- by shooting Monday.

Prior to the shooting Salam had received threats via the sms service on his mobile telephone.