Killing ignites Arab power struggle

Palestinian Authority fighting militant Hamas for control of Gaza Strip

October 10, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NUSEIRAT REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip - The execution-style killing this week of a senior Palestinian police chief has touched off a violent struggle between the ruling Palestinian Authority and the radical militant group Hamas for control of Gaza.

Street clashes have left four protesters dead. Yesterday, Hamas appeared to have the upper hand. The local blue-uniformed police were nowhere to be seen. Worried about being attacked, they had gone underground.

Street corners throughout Gaza were manned by green-vested members of the state police force, roughly equivalent to the National Guard, dressed in camouflaged flak jackets and cradling assault weapons. Hamas and Palestinian leaders met yesterday, but failed to resolve the conflict.

"Who is the real authority, the Palestinian National Authority or Hamas?" Gaza City's police chief, Brig. Gen. Mahmoud Asfour, asked afterward. "We have to try and reach an understanding with Hamas to avoid further bloodshed."

The confrontation represents a serious challenge to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and demonstrates the growing influence of Hamas among the Gaza Strip's overcrowded and impoverished population.

It also threatens to dissolve Palestinian unity as the Israeli army threatens new offensives in the Gaza Strip and retains its hold on the West Bank, where it has occupied most Palestinian cities throughout the summer and into the fall.

The two sides were in a stalemate yesterday. The Hamas member who killed the police chief refused to surrender, and Palestinian police vowed to use force to arrest him.

"There is only one authority," Nabil Shaath, one of Arafat's top Cabinet ministers, told Voice of Palestine Radio. "We will continue to pursue the murderers until they are arrested and put on trial in order to uphold the rule of law."

The police colonel, Rajeh Abu Lehiya, 47, who commanded the riot squad, was ambushed Monday morning on his way to work in Gaza City. The killers, dressed as Palestinian police, stopped his car at a fake checkpoint, shot him 10 times in the head and chest, and set his body on fire.

Lehiya and his officers had opened fire a year ago on a crowd demonstrating in support of Osama bin Laden outside Islamic University in Gaza. Three students, including Yousef Akel, 20, were killed.

Akel's older brother, Emad, 26, a member of Hamas' military wing, shot Lehiya to avenge the death, his family said. He was following tradition in a society where clan loyalty trumps civil law and disputes can linger for generations.

"We gave it a year and no one was held accountable," Aisheh Akel, 52, said yesterday inside her home at the Nuseirat camp. "My son got our revenge. This police chief was a bad person. He wasn't liked by his own people. He was hated by everyone."

She said that if her son hadn't killed Lehiya, "someone else would have." She said Emad had returned to the camp's market after the shooting and told her, "I took my revenge for my brother," then he disappeared.

Hamas leaders have tried to play down the dispute as a family feud that has nothing to do with their organization, which has been responsible for most of the suicide bombings in Israel over the past two years.

"This is not our problem," said Ismail Abu Shanab, one of Hamas' founders. "We are doing our best to calm the situation, but Emad is among his family and his supporters. We can advise him, but he thinks what he did is right. He practiced the justice that was lost by the Palestinian Authority."

But it is Hamas members who are hiding Emad Akel, and it is Hamas that has sent armed guards to the Nuseirat refugee camp to prevent a police raid.

Arresting Akel and his accomplices is the job of General Asfour, who polices the Gaza Strip, crowded with 1.2 million Palestinians, and represents the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas, one of the most radical of the many Palestinian militant groups, objects vehemently to any negotiations with Israel. Unlike Arafat's Palestinian Authority, Hamas is not willing to join in a two-state solution with Israel.

Over the past several months, Hamas has thwarted numerous attempts by Palestinian officials to stop the suicide bombing campaign and enter into a cease-fire with Israel. It calls any Palestinian who seeks a truce a traitor.

Hamas has a fervent following, especially in the Gaza Strip, which is isolated from the West Bank and hemmed in by a fence. Arafat, virtually imprisoned by the Israeli army in Ramallah, hasn't been to Gaza in nearly a year, and his influence here is clearly waning.

Palestinian police have jailed Hamas leaders in the past, when the organization was far weaker. More recently, Arafat, who routinely condemns Hamas bombings, has been unable or unwilling to accede to Israeli demands that his police force crush Hamas.

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