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September 17, 2004

Hezbollah Active Among Palestinians

by Jim Lobe

NABLUS - The narrow streets amid the breeze-block shacks of the Balata refugee camp on the edge of the large West Bank City of Nablus have been a focus of Palestinian militancy throughout the current Intifada (uprising) that was triggered four years ago.

Balata is the birth place of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the group that is allied to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and is held responsible for countless suicide attacks inside Israel.

Now Balata and the nearby Casbah of Nablus are, by the accounts of local leaders, among the centers of a new phenomenon: they provide a fertile ground for the growing involvement of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement with the Palestinian militant groups.

Israel has been making this claim for some time and has recently upped the rhetoric. Hezbollah has been accused of being involved in one way or another in some 75 percent of attacks and attempted attacks over the last couple of months.

A Palestinian security source in Ramallah who wants to remain unnamed confirmed to IPS that the Palestine Authority (PA) is aware of the level of Hezbollah "support" to militant groups. As with all forms of militancy, the PA is unwilling to act "as long as the Israeli aggression continues."

The suspected involvement of Hezbollah is potentially very dangerous for the region. The group is supported by Syria and Iran and Israel has repeatedly made clear that anyone who aids the attacks against it is a potential target. Hezbollah is on the U.S. State Department's list of terror organizations but not on the EU's.

Leaders of both the Fatah movement as well as the Islamic opposition in Nablus agree that Hezbollah is indeed involved in "some practical ways" with some armed groups. Nobody is willing to admit being the recipient of such a support, which is not very well defined either.

The main avenue for Hezbollah backing is said to be financial aid to groups through banks based in Jordan that also operate in the Palestinian territories. Hezbollah is also said to be involved in trying to supply arms.

It is also alleged that it trains Palestinians in Iran and that it is providing intelligence and information via the Internet on how to carry out attacks and making explosives and missiles. The Lebanon-based Hezbollah TV-station Al-Manar is also a potent influence among Palestinians.

Hezbollah itself recently said that it is supporting the Palestinians with deeds, not only words. After a chief operative of the organization was killed in Beirut in July, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah said that the victim was the movement's coordinator for the Palestinian areas.

The group is popular among the Palestinians who admire it for its struggle against the Israeli occupation of the South of Lebanon for almost 20 years. They see the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000 as the first real Arab victory over the Jewish state.

IPS investigations revealed that the much talked-about increase in Hezbollah's involvement in Gaza and the West Bank is causing divisions within the Palestinian camp. Large sections of the PA and the ruling Fatah movement said they were unhappy with this "foreign meddling."

"Hezbollah's support is not innocent. They want to block all prospects of a peace process," said Nasser Badawi, a senior Fatah leader from Balata who is very close to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. He spent 17 months in an Israeli jail until earlier this year.

In Balata and other centers of Palestinian militancy, such as Jenin and Gaza, many of the cells that profess to be part of Arafat's Fatah faction actually have only a very loose connection with the Brigades.

But many of the groups that number no more than four to ten people have no qualms about accepting money from the Hezbollah.

Badawi is aware of the problem, which he has encountered in Balata. "It is true that many of the small groups look for support to people like Hezbollah. That is not good, we don't want our people to be influenced by outsiders and we try to act against it."

Another Fatah leader in Nablus, Luai Abdo, is even more vehement about the Hezbollah involvement. "If Israel and Syria have a problem it is not fought out on the Golan heights but here in the West Bank or in Gaza."

He too points at the financial and institutional weakness of the PA and Fatah. "We are divided and weak. That is why everybody else is poking their nose in our business."

Yet not all Fatah leaders are averse to accepting money from the Hezbollah. "If groups like Hezbollah want to support our cause it should be done through national organizations such as the Fatah," says Amin Maqbul.

He is one of the highest ranking Fatah leaders in the West Bank, having taken over the "executive committee" after the arrest of Marwan Barghouti, a major Intifada leader.

He is aware of reports that money is being sluiced to Fatah through banks in Jordan and in other ways, and he believes that those reports are correct.

"The problem arises when individual groups receive support form abroad – and go against our national policy," says Maqbul. He has no doubt that this is the case and he says it has led to tensions with Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Fatah accuses these groups of having torpedoed a cease-fire "on orders from abroad." Maqbul says that in discussions with these groups Fatah has protested strongly against these "foreign influences."

Youssef Aaref, a senior leader of the Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, rejects such criticism. "Our struggle is legitimate so it is also legitimate to get support from outside for it."

He confirms that Hezbollah is in some ways involved with Palestinian groups, but he says Jihad does not receive money from the Lebanese movement or from Iran. "Logistically it is very difficult," he says without elaborating.

Apart from a part of Fatah that feels threatened by foreign support to other groups, Hezbollah's aid seems to be welcomed. Abdel Sater Kassem, a lecturer at Al-Najjah university in Nablus – who is close to the Islamic opposition and plans to run against Arafat if elections are held next year – says it is Hezbollah's duty to help the Palestinians. "It is in their program."

He too is convinced Hezbollah is directly involved, but he cannot say how. Kassem says that the Palestinians need Hezbollah's aid because they themselves are not well-organized and are not "true revolutionaries."

Also, Palestinians are too willing to compromise. "Even if all Arabs have made peace with Israel, Hezbollah will fight on."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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