Thursday, May 31, 2007

Never, Ever Poison the Well You Need to Drink From

Jihadist Groups Fill a Palestinian Power Vacuum - New York Times:

"Palestinian authority, both in the Palestinian areas and in refugee camps in Lebanon and beyond, used to lie in the hands of Fatah, the nationalist faction once led by Yasir Arafat. But after the entry of militant Hamas into politics, its 2006 electoral defeat of Fatah and the battles between them, jihadi freelancers with murky links are filling a vacuum in Gaza and in the camps in Lebanon.

Bush administration officials say they are increasingly concerned that Hamas and even more radical groups may be hijacking the Palestinian movement. The officials say they see no operational connection between what is happening in Palestinian camps in Lebanon and the deterioration in Gaza. But they say they do see an ideological link, with hopeless and marginalized young people turning to jihad because they believe that more secular or moderate options have failed them.

In the squalid streets of the Ain al Hilwe refugee camp outside the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, people like Abu Ahmed Taha are bracing for a fight they have long been dreading.

Militias in the camp of 47,000 roam the streets armed and ready; skirmishes break out sporadically and tensions have never been higher. For Mr. Taha, the real danger is that the fastest-growing militias are those of jihadis with wholly different aspirations from his.

“There is a central problem and that is Al Qaeda, and they are spreading,” Mr. Taha said, after an emergency meeting of religious and political leaders in the camp last week to calm tensions. “The Islamic awakening has been going on for 25 years now. But this, now, is going to become a huge problem for us.”

Mr. Taha’s fears are remarkable because of who he is: not a secular campaigner or a Fatah apparatchik, but a senior member of Hamas. In the violent underground of the militias, men like him have become unlikely moderates, calling for calm and seeking to build bonds with the other militias and the government.

Security officials and analysts say groups inspired by Al Qaeda have had a presence in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon for a decade, where they have thrived, taking advantage of the lawlessness and poor living conditions. In Lebanon, Palestinians are not allowed to own property and are limited in the kind of work they can do. They generally enjoy few rights.

Ain al Hilwe, too, became a jihadi hotbed about five years ago. More than 25 men from there alone have gone to Iraq to fight, Hamas and Fatah officials say, never to be seen again. And jihadis there say more are ready to go.

Mr. Taha notes that the new groups make it easy to join. Whereas it may take years of inculcation for a young man to become a full-fledged member of Hamas, he can become a member of the jihadi militias just by declaring fealty, Mr. Taha said. And rather than focusing on a political education, the militia members focus on a global fight coupled with religious sloganeering.

Whether these jihadist groups are part of Al Qaeda or simply local bands of religious fanatics, Westerners and their institutions are now more clearly under attack throughout the region, including in Gaza, as seen in the bombing of the schools and in the kidnappings of two Fox News correspondents and of Alan Johnston, the BBC’s Gaza correspondent. A shadowy group called the Army of Islam claims that it kidnapped Mr. Johnston in March.

In Gaza, where residents tend to be more religiously observant than those in the West Bank, Palestinians say Al Qaeda has had less of an impact than a growing band of religious fanatics. The groups are striking out at what they consider to be moral and religious corruption, using popular religious justifications for common acts of criminal kidnapping and extortion. "

con·cept: Never, Ever Poison the Well You Need to Drink From