New Fatah Gaza Force Training for Future Clashes With Hamas

Egypt helps train force, already 1,400-strong, with plans to add another thousand.

Fatah has established a new security apparatus in the Gaza Strip and is recruiting thousands of militants in preparation for another round of violent clashes with Hamas. So far the organization - known as the Special Force - has recruited 1,400 combatants, a thousand of which have undergone military training.

Fatah intends to recruit an addition of at least 1,000 men to the organization, loyal to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The organization is headed by Sami Abu Samhadana, a notable operative in the first intifada.

Palestinian sources told Haaretz that the new recruitment effort was initiated some six weeks ago. According to the sources, officers from Palestinian General Intelligence service and the National Security Force were assigned to the ranks of the new organization.

They added that the organization is designed to function as an intervention force in case of a second conflagration of hostilities in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and Fatah.

The sources, loyal to Fatah, add that the cease-fire between the two rival factions is regarded as a temporary arrangement, to be terminated as soon as Hamas "perceives itself strong enough to overtake Fatah militarily."

Therefore, the sources say, the Special Fatah Force along with Abbas' Presidential Guard will have an important role in deterring Hamas from resuming hostilities.

Abu Samhadana was appointed commander of the Special Force several years ago, but it was only recently decided to transform his relatively insignificant organization into a new major apparatus loyal only to Fatah and Abbas. Abu Samhadana is nonetheless considered an ally of Mohammed Dahlan, head of the Palestinian National Security Council and aide to Abbas.

Abu Samhadana's brother, Jammal, had been head of the Popular Resistance Committees, a breakaway Fatah militia, until Israel assassinated him last June. During the second intifada, Sami Abu Samhadana was sent to Egypt for medical attention due to heart problems. Upon his return, Israel barred him from re-entering the Strip, so he stole across the border with Egypt into the Strip through a tunnel in Rafah where his wife's family lives.

Palestinian sources say some 350 combatants from the Special Force were sent to Egypt at the beginning of March to participate in a training course under the tutelage of officers from the Palestinian Authority and Egyptian army.

The combatants of the Special Force training in Egypt were joined by several hundred soldiers of the Presidential Guard. Other soldiers of the Guard are currently training within the PA, in Gaza and in Jericho, where 500 new Presidential Guard recruits have only recently completed their training program.

The sources say both the Special Force and the Presidential Guard are exercising strict discretion in accepting new recruits. "Anyone with any sort of affiliation to Islamist groups will not be accepted," they say. Sources add that Hamas is well aware of the mass recruiting and training in organizations loyal to Fatah, and that senior Hamas figures are pressing to militarily engage Fatah as soon as possible. They fear Dahlan and Abbas' military force would greatly surpass Hamas' forces in several months' time, the sources explain.

Currently, however, there appears to be a shortage in weapons in Fatah's ranks. According to the sources, Egypt shipped some 200 assault rifles to Abbas' forces three months ago, with Israel's consent. During the visit to the region of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Middle East envoy, David Welsh, Abbas demanded that Israel allow the transfer of weapons to Fatah forces. The request was made both to Israel and to the Americans, but was rejected by both parties.

Meanwhile, the violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have continued over the weekend with the assassination Friday of an officer in the National Security Force. Fatah accused Hamas for the killing of Sheikh Adnan al-Mansara as part of a dispute on control over a new mosque in Gaza's Shajaiyeh neighborhood. Fatah and Hamas militants have exchanged fire in Beit Hanun. In addition, unknown parties have set off an explosion in a local Internet services business.