RAMALLAH, West Bank – Hezbollah is emerging as the biggest threat to a fragile Israeli-Palestinian truce, with Lebanese guerrillas offering West Bank gunmen thousands of dollars to step up attacks on Israelis, the gunmen and Palestinian security officials said Wednesday.
The Iranian-funded Lebanese guerrillas, who have hundreds of West Bank gunmen on their payroll, have stepped up pressure on them in recent weeks, the security officials said.
One retired militant told The Associated Press that a Hezbollah recruiter called him just a day before this week’s Mideast summit in Egypt, told him the cease-fire wouldn’t last and offered a generous payment if he returns to violence. A squad of five or six militants typically receives $5,000 to $8,000 a month from Hezbollah for expenses, including bullets, weapons, cell phone calling cards and spending money.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose political survival depends on making the cease-fire stick, is trying to avoid confrontation with Hezbollah for the moment.
He has sent an envoy, former Palestinian Cabinet minister Abdel Fattah Hemayel, to Lebanon to try to urge Hezbollah to step back. Hemayel is not meeting Hezbollah directly, but is delivering his message through top officials of Abbas’ Fatah (news – web sites) movement who live in exile in Lebanon and have ties to Hezbollah.
Majed Farraj, a top official in the Palestinian Interior Ministry, said “there are foreign parties who are trying create bases in Palestine,” but he did not refer to Hezbollah directly.
“This has a political dimension, and the Palestinian Authority (news – web sites) will not allow it,” Farraj said. “Fatah leaders here and abroad are exerting efforts to deal with this.”
Palestinian officials have also expressed concern in recent meetings with U.S. and European diplomats about Hezbollah’s destabilizing influence, participants said.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Afif denied the group is trying to disrupt the truce declared Tuesday, saying “these accusations are part of an American-Israeli campaign against Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah has been recruiting Palestinian militants since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, mainly targeting members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which is affiliated with Fatah. They are also getting involved in weapons smuggling to the West Bank and Gaza Strip (news – web sites), and training operatives from the Islamic militant group Hamas.
After helping stoke the uprising for more than four years, Iran now hopes to disrupt the cease-fire and bring down Abbas, said Israeli analyst Joseph Alpher. “Iran is … the only Muslim state that refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist,” he said. “You can’t explain it by realpolitik. It’s about ideology.”
After Abbas’ Jan. 9 election victory, Iran issued an invitation. The Palestinian leader has not turned Tehran down, but appears in no rush to set a date for a trip that could undercut his growing ties with the West.
Fifty-one squads of gunmen in the West Bank, most of them affiliated with Al Aqsa, are directly funded by Hezbollah, a senior Israeli security official said on condition of anonymity.
Most of the squads operate in the city of Nablus and the nearby town of Jenin — the main reason why these two areas are the last to be handed over the Palestinian security control. Five other towns, where the Hezbollah influence is far weaker, will return to Palestinian control over the next three weeks, as part of an agreement reached by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news – web sites) at this week’s summit.
After their meeting, the two leaders also declared an end to hostilities. Abbas made the pledge after receiving promises from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and most Al Aqsa cells that they will halt attacks. The Hezbollah-funded Al Aqsa squads are now the only holdouts against a cease-fire.
Just hours after the summit ended, Al Aqsa members shot at an Israeli car south of Nablus, causing no injuries but sending a clear message that they would not abide by the cease-fire.
Ala Sanakra, who commands an Al Aqsa cell in the Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus, said his men attacked the car in retaliation for an army arrest raid in the camp. Sanakra refused to say whether he is getting money from Hezbollah.
A former militant in the West Bank city of Ramallah said a Hezbollah recruiter called him Monday, a day before the summit, and urged him to resume attacks.
The recruiter said the cease-fire wouldn’t last long and that the Palestinians shouldn’t settle for an Israeli pullout from West Bank towns after such a long and bloody struggle. He “promised to cover all my expenses, buying bullets and weapons,” said the 28-year-old Palestinian, who dropped out of Al Aqsa 18 months ago and declined Hezbollah’s offer.
Hezbollah is also trying to recruit members of the Palestinian security forces as allies, the former Al Aqsa member said.
Israeli security officials, who have resumed cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts in recent weeks, said they are concerned about possible leaks. They said they believe some Palestinian officers are on Hezbollah’s payroll and might pass on information they are getting from the Israelis.
Israel prefers to take direct action, wherever possible. West Bank militants have named two of their contacts in Hezbollah as Ghaleb Awali and Ali Hussein Saleh, both of whom were killed in car bomb attacks Hezbollah has attributed to Israel. Saleh, who worked as a security guard at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, died in August 2003. Awali, a veteran Hezbollah commander, was blown up in July 2004.
Hezbollah operatives deal directly with individual groups of Al Aqsa gunmen; Al Aqsa is not tightly organized and, unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has no central command.
Some of the money that Hezbollah pays squads is transferred via Western Union, said a top Palestinian police official in charge of watching extremists.
In e-mails, Hezbollah asks for detailed accounts of the squads’ activities, including names of those who carried out attacks. The Palestinian official said he is monitoring some of the e-mail traffic, and that the Palestinian Monetary Authority is watching the money transfers. He said he has briefed Palestinian leaders on Hezbollah’s activities, but has not received an order to step in or make arrests.
Abbas is avoiding confrontation, in part, because he prefers to co-opt militants, not arrest them. In the case of the Hezbollah-backed squads, it would mean outbidding the Lebanese guerrillas, or offering the gunmen jobs in the Palestinian Authority and a promise of Israeli amnesty.