Gunmen break up Fatah party meeting
Masked Palestinian gunmen burst into a meeting of the ruling Fatah Party on Thursday, shooting into the air and forcing participants to disperse in a brazen challenge to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
The incident cast doubt on his authority as he comes under increasing pressure from Israel to disarm militants.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared an end to more than four years of bloodshed at a summit in Egypt a month ago, but Abbas has yet to get the violent Hamas and Islamic Jihad to formally join the truce.
Events in Ramallah on Thursday showed Abbas faces problems just as serious in his own Fatah Party, as younger, militant cadres continue to demand a piece of the leadership pie.
More than 1,000 Fatah grass roots activists were meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah when two dozen gunmen dressed in military-style fatigues, their faces covered, burst into the room in a shiny new hotel where the session was in progress.
The gunmen, from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a violent group affiliated with Fatah, rampaged through the room and shouted slogans charging the Fatah leadership with complicity in widespread corruption.
Shocked participants ducked and scrambled for the exits as the intruders, brandishing assault rifles, began throwing chairs around, ordering everyone to leave.
"Our demands are for change and reform," said Menwer al-Aqraa, an Al Aqsa commander in Ramallah, without elaborating. He said, however, that his group would not disarm, though it remains loyal to the Palestinian Authority.
Abbas and his top aides were nowhere near the meeting, but the message was clear ！ Abbas may have the old-time Fatah institutions behind him, but at the lower, younger levels, the picture is one of turmoil and competition. During the past four years of violence, the gunman, not the bespectacled, gray-haired politician, has become the icon of Palestinian leadership.
Some observers predict Fatah will take a beating in parliamentary elections scheduled for July because of popular disgust over the way the Palestinian Authority has been run in recent years, amid persistent reports of corruption, nepotism and inefficiency.
Also, growing numbers of Palestinians are upset over the terrible price exacted by the conflict ！ the economy decimated, poverty spreading, casualties piling up ！ with no visible benefits.
Fatah ruled Palestinian politics practically unchallenged for four decades, with Yasser Arafat, who died on Nov. 11, at the helm. Polls now show the party might lose the contest to independents and Hamas, which is to contest the election for the first time without leaving behind its main goal ！ the eventual destruction of Israel.
Abbas would lose considerable prestige if Fatah fares poorly, reducing his leverage over Hamas and Islamic Jihad ！ despite his own clearly stated opposition to violent resistance against Israel.
Egypt, which has been mediating talks for several years between the Palestinian Authority and militant groups, has invited Abbas and 13 militant groups to Cairo Tuesday to formalize the truce.
"I expect this meeting in Cairo will conclude all the efforts that have been made by the Egyptian brothers," Abbas told reporters in Gaza City, adding that he will personally participate in the gathering. "God willing, we could have a declaration," he said.
The truce declared a month ago has been holding for the most part, but sporadic violence has persisted, including a Feb. 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis.
Israeli troops on Thursday raided the West Bank home of a suspect in the suicide bombing and killed him. Since the bombing, Israel has stepped up pressure on Abbas to take tougher action to disarm militants. It also has frozen plans to hand over security responsibilities to the Palestinians in five West Bank towns.
Abbas criticized the Israeli raid, saying it makes it harder for him to ensure the quiet.
The target of the raid in a West Bank village near the town of Jenin was identified by relatives as Mohammed Abu Hazneh, 28, a member of Islamic Jihad.
Israeli military officials said he was behind the Tel Aviv suicide bombing, part of a cell that also built a car bomb the Israelis disarmed last week and was planning further attacks.
"He was personally involved in the nonstop efforts of this cell to carry out attacks," said Lt. Col. Avi Gil, commander of the Israeli unit that killed Abu Hazneh.
Nafez Azzam, an Islamic Jihad leader, warned the killing "does not encourage us to continue the state of calmness that currently exists on the ground." Speaking to The Associated Press by phone in the Gaza Strip, he said his group will discuss with Abbas how to proceed.