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Fatah, the former guerrilla movement of Yasser Arafat, was the undisputed dominant force in Palestinian political life for generations.
But after Arafat’s death in 2004, years of frustration with corruption and stalemate in peace talks with Israel led the more austere and religious Hamas to victory in parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006.
The friction sparked a civil war between the two groups. Hundreds of people were killed and the Palestinian territories ended up under divided control. Each accuses the other of having carried out summary executions of their partisans.
“If they try that kind of coup here in the West Bank, my M16 is ready,” the security man said. “It’ll shoot straight.”
PA forces, formed after the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, were first drawn from Fatah officers freed from Israeli jails after the first Palestinian Intifada (Uprising) began in 1987.
Palestinian security officials say their state-in-waiting needs a monopoly on weapons and that other groups must be disarmed to allow negotiations with Israel. They say their arrests focus only on weapons and planned attacks, and any abuse of prisoners is the work of a misguided few.
“President Abbas is the one who decides the national strategy, and he has chosen peaceful popular resistance, without arms,” Major General Adnan Damiri, a Fatah veteran and a founder of the Palestinian security forces, told Reuters.
“I grew up with nothing, a refugee with no shoes on my feet and for years I chose the way of the guerrilla,” Damiri said. “But like I always tell Israeli TV channels: We tried to throw you into the sea and you tried to throw us into the desert. We both failed, so we have to find a new way.”
“UNDER THEIR HEELS”
For now, Hamas backers in the West Bank mainly keep a low profile or risk Israeli and Palestinian jails.
Yet the group hopes to ride a wave of upheaval that has swept long-repressed Islamists into power throughout the region, believing they represent ideas whose time has come.