Arrests of Hamas Officials Cloud Palestinian Unity Talks

June 5, 2011

As the Hamas and Fatah movements work to put together a national unity cabinet, ending four years of acrimony, talks are being clouded by what Hamas says is an unremitting campaign by the Palestinian Authority (PA) of arrests and harassment in the West Bank.

clearpxlOfficials of the Islamic movement that controls the Gaza Strip accuse the Fatah-dominated PA, which rules in the West Bank, of breeching the reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo one month ago.

“Not only have no political prisoners been released until now, but more are being arrested and summoned for questioning all the time,” Hamed Al-Betawi, a Hamas member of parliament from the West Bank city of Nablus, told The Media Line.

The reconciliation agreement called for a mutual prisoner exchange to take place immediately following the signing of the reconciliation agreement on May 4. The agreement also stipulates the formation of a technocrat government followed by parliamentary and presidential elections within a year.

But as of last Thursday, no change has been made in the status of Hamas prisoners held in PA prisons in the West Bank, Wasfi Qabha, a former Hamas minister for prisoner affairs, told the Palestinian Information Center (PIC), a Hamas-affiliated news agency. Qabha said he was informed by PA security officials that all but 35 Hamas prisoners would be released on Monday, the day the new unity government is to be announced.

The issue of prisoner releases cuts to the core of the problems facing Palestinian leaders as they try to craft a national unity government. The two movements remain bitter enemies, divided not only on ideology but over sharing power. Releasing Hamas prisoners held in the West Bank, Fatah’s base, could reenergize the Islamic movement, threatening Fatah control and increasing the chances of terror attacks against Israel.

PA government spokesman Ghassan Al-Khatib told The Media Line he had “no comment or information” on the imminent release of Hamas prisoners, who are estimated to number some 300. Others are held by Israel, which maintains a security presence in much of the West Bank.

“A further delay by the security agencies in releasing the prisoners would mean the collapse of reconciliation,” Qabha told PIC. “According to the agreement, the prisoners should have been released immediately after the signing, but more than a month has gone by and most prisoners have not been released.”

Echoing the divisions and distrust that continue between the two movements, Al-Betawi, the Hamas lawmaker, blamed the West Bank security agencies for cooperating with Israel against their own people.

“The security agencies have ties with the Zionist enemy,” Al-Betawi said. “Not a day goes by without dozens of Hamas members arrested in every district of the West Bank.”

Khalil Abu-Shammala, director of Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights in Gaza, said the reconciliation agreement had called for a special committee to be formed to discuss the release of political prisoners on both sides. The committee would meet under the supervision of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, an official PA watchdog, and the Arab League. However, the committee has still not convened, he said.

“Each side blames the other for political arrests,” Abu-Shammala told The Media Line. “Here in Gaza, Fatah claims that 17 members of the organization are held in Hamas prisons.”

Abu-Shammala said, however, that Fatah’s claim had no legal basis, since many of the detainees are accused of murder, a crime that he said couldn’t be attributed to inter-factional clashes.

“You cannot call someone who committed murder a political prisoner,” Abu-Shammala said.

Meanwhile, both the PA and Hamas blame Israel for trying to sabotage the reconciliation effort by intensifying an arrest campaign in the West Bank against Palestinian political figures belonging both to Hamas and to Fatah. According to Al-Quds daily, the Israeli army arrested Hamas lawmaker Abdul Rahman Zidan last Wednesday as well as three other Hamas parliament members, including speaker of the house Aziz Dweik. Israel also reportedly arrested Fatah official Hussam Khader, a resident of Nablus.

But Hamas used the Israeli arrests as an opportunity to direct blame at the PA security agencies for cooperating with Israel.

“While Hamas condemns the continuation of Israel’s escalation in the West Bank, it deplores the security agencies’ continued security coordination with the occupation,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu-Zuhri said Thursday.

A main point of contention between the two Palestinian factions, security cooperation is to resume following the establishment of a High Security Committee, comprised of “professional officers in consensus.”

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