Gaza militants warn Arafat

Without "free and fair elections," more protests will follow, leader says.

Published July 22, 2004 1:48PM (EDT)

The militants who brought Gaza to a state of near anarchy in protest at the alleged corruption of Yasser Arafat's regime have warned they will take more action if their message is not heeded.

"This is just the beginning," said Abu Shakir, a leader of the group which attacked police stations and kidnapped a Palestinian police chief.

"The basic demand behind this agitation is that we want free and fair elections. For Arafat's position, for Ahmed Qureia's [the Palestinian prime minister] position, for all the positions," he said.

The warning came as Israeli helicopters fired two missiles last night at an alleged Hamas weapons workshop in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza.

One of the missiles exploded in the empty shop, residents said, but the other failed to explode. There was no immediate report of casualties..

The protests in Gaza were the work of Fatah, Mr Arafat's political faction. But the violence and kidnappings were the work of two of its offshoots.

Abu Shakir is a leader of one, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The other is the Abu Rish Brigade, which kidnapped and released four French aid workers last Friday.

The main Islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have remained on the sidelines but support the protests.

Abu Haroun, a leader of the Abu Rish Brigade, said his group would take unspecified action if it was ignored. Speaking from a meeting place of the group, about 100 metres from Israeli positions, he said: "Promises were made to the victims of the intifada, those that lost homes, lives and limbs. But they were given nothing unless they had good connections. It is our duty to look after the victims regardless of their connections."

The Abu Rish Brigade was formed in 1994 and named after Ahmed Abu Rish, a Fatah leader assassinated by Israel five days after he was released in an amnesty. The group claims to have lost 52 men fighting Israel.

Abu Haroun criticised officials who have kept their jobs despite their incompetence. "Maybe they start their jobs well but after a few years they start to only think of themselves and that's when they start building their big villas and flooding foreign bank accounts," he said.

The group would not harm hostages, who were just a means of delivering a message. "We thought long and hard about doing it because we value the work of humanitarian workers and journalists, but we thought we had no choice. In the end we had more television coverage than if there had been 20 people killed in Khan Yunis, and they were not even harmed."

Both groups said they had not coordinated their protests on Friday over the appointment by Mr Arafat of his cousin, Moussa Arafat, as head of the police.

"Moussa Arafat was just the biggest and worst symbol of corruption," said Abu Shakir.

"What Arafat has done so far is not a response. Just shuffling a few people around suggests he is just behaving in the same manner as before."

The weekend disturbances in Gaza coincided with Mr Qureia tendering his resigna tion. Speaking from a rare patch of green grass in Khan Yunis, Abu Shakir added: "We are for reform. Not for Ahmed Qureia. If anything he is part of the problem. We see him as part of the old guard."

There is also speculation that Mohammed Dahlan, the former interior minister, is behind the anti-Arafat protests. He is popular in Gaza despite his connections with Israel and the US. Abu Haroun said: "We speak to Dahlan and he speaks to us and we respect each other. But we act independently."

Both groups feel their messages have been delivered. But they warn if they are ignored there could be an escalation in the situation in Gaza.

Abu Haroun said: "I cannot say what we will do but you will know all about it."

By Conal Urquhart

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