David Miller
The Media Line
January 10, 2011 - 1:00am

The Palestinian Authority is quietly encouraging officials from its ruling Fatah party who fled the Gaza Strip following the rival Hamas movement’s bloody takeover in 2007 to return home.

“Hamas and Fatah are both present in the Gaza Strip, and I support all Fatah people returning,” Hussam Khadr, a Fatah leader from Nablus, told The Media Line. "The party leadership should be brave and force people who left without a justified reason to return."

Khadr and other officials, however, declined to confirm a report in the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi that a "security committee" was recently established by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to weigh the security threat facing Fatah members living abroad or in the West Bank if they return. The committee has already instructed some Fatah officials to immediately return to Gaza, or risk loosing their salaries, the newspaper said.

The initiative comes as talks to form a unity government between Fatah-dominated PA and Hamas, rival claimants as the official government of the Palestinian people, have all but collapsed. 'Azzam Al-Ahmad, Fatah’s lead negotiator in the talks, said this week that dialogue with Hamas wouldn’t resume unless Hamas signed the Egyptian reconciliation document that Fatah had already signed.

Hundreds of Fatah officials and security personnel fled Gaza during and immediately after Hamas' takeover of the territory in June 2007. Some 300 former Gaza residents are said to be living in the West Bank; others reside in Egypt, the Gulf and Europe.

An official at President Mahmoud Abbas' office, who spoke to The Media Line, on condition of anonymity denied the Al-Quds Al-Arabi report of a special committee, but Fatah officials noted that Abbas and other Fatah leaders have publicly called on party members to return to Gaza.

Khadr said he opposed suspending the men’s salaries, but he said he backed Abbas’ call for the movement to send ex-Gazans to return to their former homes. "Unfortunately they're not listening," he added.

"Only Fatah members for whom returning to the Gaza Strip poses a real risk should be exempt," Khadr added, "but those can be counted on the fingers of one hand."

Ahmad Yousef, the Hamas deputy foreign minister, agreed that returning Fatah members had no cause for fear.

"Any Palestinian may travel freely on his land," Yousef told The Media Line. "This is everyone's homeland, regardless of party affiliations. I personally know many Fatah members who have returned and no one said a word to them."

Yousef said many Fatah members have entered Gaza through the Rafah and Erez border crossings with Israel. "Any person who did not commit a crime may enter freely, as long as no criminal case is pending," Yousef maintained.

But some Fatah members were less confident about the ability of officials to return safely, and Fatah spokesman Ahmad 'Assaf said that on one occasion entry to the Strip was denied to two of the movement’s officials.

"Two months ago, Rouhi Fattouh and Abdullah Al-Ifranji tried to enter Gaza and were prevented from doing so by Hamas," 'Assaf told The Media Line. "Hamas rules supreme in Gaza."

Fattouh and Ifranji were sent to Gaza by Abbas on November 28 to take part in reconciliation talks with Hamas.

Political arrests of Hamas operatives in the West Bank have increased in the past several months, human rights organizations said. Hamas, too, has detained Fatah operatives, but Mahmoud Abu-Rahma, international coordinator for Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, said Hamas tended to harass Fatah activists by repeatedly summoning them for questioning at the Internal Security Agency headquarters, rather than arresting them for extended periods.

"They will often be summoned by phone, which is illegal," Abu-Rahma told The Media Line. "When they arrive, they will sometimes be handcuffed, have a sack placed on their head, and be humiliated."

Abu-Rahma predicted that returning Fatah operatives will be treated the same as those who never left the Strip, some of whom are now on death row.

"There is a recurring pattern of intimidation against Fatah people," he said. "We cannot predict the response of Gaza authorities to their return, but we expect they will be summoned for questioning immediately upon arrival. Men accused of violent acts during the 2007 clashes may face detention in prison."

Some observers speculated that political infighting within Fatah was behind the new PA campaign. Muhammad Dahlan, who was the top Fatah official in Gaza until 2007, has reportedly had a falling out with Abbas, who some observers say may now be trying to disperse his supporters by sending them to Gaza. But Khadr of Nablus denied this.

"Dahlan's strength or weakness stems from his legitimacy within Fatah institutions," he said. "The conflict between Dahlan and the president is being reviewed by an investigating committee, which I believe is responsible. The matter can be dealt with in the framework of Fatah."


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