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Palestinian factions jockey for leadership

Disengagement likely to create power vacuum

GAZA CITY -- Even before Israel has pulled out of a single settlement in the Gaza Strip, rival Palestinian factions are already embroiled in a fiery, potentially violent power struggle over who will fill the vacuum left behind after disengagement.

Hamas, the militant faction dedicated to the total defeat of Israel, has shunned the more moderate Palestinian Authority's call for peaceful celebrations once Israelis withdraw from their 21 settlements in Gaza.

Instead, Hamas has made an unprecedented show of strength, inviting reporters to witness military training of Hamas fighters practicing raids on Jewish settlements. Even militant factions allied with the Palestinian Authority, including the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, have dismissed calls for peace and unity in Gaza, instead swearing to continue the armed struggle against Israel.

The fractious infighting could yet lead to clashes with the 42,000 Israeli soldiers and police who will be in and around Gaza during the disengagement, which officially begins today.

The fighting words from Hamas play into the fears of Israelis who believe that withdrawing from Gaza will only give militants momentum and more room to operate. At the same time, the militant factions are directly challenging the leadership of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has tried to position himself as the politician responsible for the disengagement.

Yesterday, Mohammed Dahlan, the top Palestinian Authority official in charge of disengagement, pleaded with 700 clan leaders in Gaza City to avoid infighting.

''If the world sees us as riffraff, running in all directions, this would put an end to our dream of building our own state," Dahlan said. ''This is what Sharon wants us to do. He wants to withdraw, and then we start the cruel infighting."

All Palestinians in Gaza should attend a single peaceful celebration organized by the Palestinian Authority, Dahlan said. Such a show of unity, he joked, ''would cause a heart attack for Sharon."

Nearby on a major thoroughfare, two masked gunmen in black uniforms read a declaration of continuing war against Israel.

''The resistance will keep its weapons," said the statement they read. ''The end of the occupation in Gaza does not mean the end of resistance."

A 30-foot mural in the main square depicted a Hamas fighter hoisting the group's banner over an Israeli settlement, and under a skull and bones a caption read: ''Hamas, the resistance wins, and the enemy breaks."

Abbas has insisted that Palestinians act in concert and that all victory celebrations during the disengagement take place under the red, green, and white Palestinian flag. Hamas leaders are insisting otherwise, already organizing militarized demonstrations beneath the group's green Islamic flag.

A few hundred yards from the Israeli border, Hamas leader Sheik Mahmoud Al Zahar declared it would be a crime to dismantle his militia, as Abbas has demanded.

Abbas ''says we want only one weapon. I tell him: this is the only weapon," Zahar said to a platoon of camouflaged fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, and equipped with new white jeeps.

Abbas is trying to steer a delicate course, claiming credit for the disengagement but preventing any of the factions, which seem to be entirely out of his control, from attacking Israelis during the pullout. A Palestinian attack could invite massive Israeli retaliation and postpone the disengagement from the settlements.

Israeli opponents of disengagement have said it will only embolden Palestinian fighters, who for years peppered the Gaza settlements with homemade Qassam rockets in an effort to drive out settlers.

Factional leaders are doing nothing to calm such fears on the eve of disengagement.

''The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is an escape, a defeat by the rockets of the mujahideen," said Muhammad al-Hindi, the leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. ''This is a historic turning point, the first step of dismantling the Zionist project."

Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad has rejected the Palestinian Authority's push to dismantle militant organizations and absorb their fighters into the official Palestinian security forces.

Lesser-known militant groups, such as the underground Popular Resistance Committees, have agreed to join the Palestinian Authority's Interior Ministry forces, but the group's leader, Muhammad Alal, 32, said his 450 fighters will remain loyal to him.

Alal, wearing a black belt with a pistol and two mobile phones, said that after the pullout his group would shift its militant activities to the West Bank.

''We have cells dormant in the West Bank. They are ready to start the jihad," he said. And while he said his group would refrain from attacking Israelis during the Gaza withdrawal, he said it remained committed to ''liberating Palestine from the sea to the river."

Palestinian Authority officials insisted that they would retain control over the Gaza Strip in the coming weeks and scoffed at claims that the militants had provoked the Israeli disengagement.

''They are crazy to think this way," said Walid Hamami, a legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority's interior minister. ''Do they think they have forced the Israeli army to withdraw by firing their rusty pipes?"

Various militarized factions have chartered all the buses in Gaza City, in preparation for rival victory celebrations once the first Jewish settlements are abandoned. So many buses have been tied up, in fact, that regular transportation services have been suspended in much of the city. The densely populated Gaza Strip is home to 1.4 million Palestinians.

The partisan wrangling among Palestinian factions has left many Gaza residents indifferent.

''We are baffled," said Ata Swailem, 51, a bus driver who lost his job in Tel Aviv after a suicide bombing in 2001. ''The authority is corrupt, and the Islamic radicals are leading us to a disaster," he said. ''I am tired of sitting at home doing nothing but playing cards."

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