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Story Publication logo February 25, 2009

Fringe Groups to Join Cairo Talks


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Inside Gaza

Gazan healthcare facilities have been strangled by an Israeli blockade since June 2007, when Hamas...

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Palestinian fringe movements will for the first time join major players Fatah and Hamas in Cairo this week to discuss a long-term cease-fire with Israel and the formation of a unified Palestinian government.

But the participation Thursday of senior cadres from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) may be a mixed blessing, because they are just as opposed as Hamas to recognizing the Jewish state.

Outnumbered by Hamas in terms of followers, PIJ and the PFLP have well-armed, clandestine paramilitary wings that give them the ability to wreck any cease-fire.

Suicide bombers from Hamas and the two fringe groups have killed hundreds of Israelis over the past two decades and the groups' rocket teams in Gaza appear to operate outside the control of Hamas.

Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said the groups "don't want to be marginalized. For them, it's a big deal to be asked" to join talks.

At the same time, he said, the Palestinians may be looking to unify in anticipation that there will be no meaningful peace talks if Benjamin Netanyahu, a hawkish Israeli politician, becomes prime minister in a new government.

Israel refuses to talk directly with Hamas, PIJ or PFLP because it considers them to be terrorist groups.

Instead, the Palestinians from Gaza and Israel are to negotiate separately with Egypt, which is acting as a mediator.

The PFLP was founded in 1967 by the late George Habash, a Palestinian Christian. It has long been considered a terrorist organization, carrying out numerous airline hijackings in the 1970s.

The PFLP nevertheless earned respect from Palestinians because it was less corrupt than Fatah, Mr. Byman said.

The current leader of the PFLP in Gaza, Dr. Rabah Mohanna, an endocrinologist by profession, rejects the terrorist moniker. "We are fighting for our rights, for justice, and for our land," he told The Washington Times.

Swairjo Dolfikar, director of PFLP Radio, added, "Stay in Gaza for a while, you´ll see who the terrorist is."

Mr. Dolfikar, a pharmacist, was referring to Israel, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians during a 22-day offensive in Gaza last month. Israel attacked in response to Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli towns.

The PFLP is secular while PIJ - as its name makes clear - is not. It emerged about two decades ago from the Palestinian branch of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which had rejected the use of violence to achieve political objectives. Iran has been a major backer of PIJ for over a decade, Mr. Byman said.

The armed wings of the PFLP and PIJ fought alongside Hamas´ Al-Qassam Brigades during the recent fighting with Israel.

The semi-Marxist PFLP disagrees with Hamas´ goal of establishing a theocracy in the Palestinian territories, starting with Gaza, but has similar ambitions to remake the Jewish state.

"Hamas wants to create an Islamic state in the Gaza Strip," Mr. Dolfikar said. "We want to liberate all of Palestine."

PIJ and Hamas both share roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Hamas envisions the resurrection of a transnational caliphate - the Islamic empire that ruled much of the Middle East, North Africa and even parts of Europe for a thousand years.

Khaled al-Batch, chief of PIJ in Gaza, says his group's ambitions do not extend beyond the boundaries of pre-1948 Palestine.

"The era of the caliphate was over a long time ago," he said. "We need a modern, advanced form of government."

PIJ also rejects the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) almost as adamantly as it does Israel and has refused to participate in legislative elections - unlike Hamas and the PFLP.

"Islamic Jihad cannot accept the PA because doing so would mean we acknowledge the state of Israel and all of the elements of Oslo," Mr. al-Batch said.

The 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) created the Palestinian Authority as the foundation for a separate Palestinian state.

The PFLP, PIJ and Hamas reject a two-state solution and opposed Oslo because it provided no "right of return" for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced in 1948 and subsequent wars.

However, when fighting broke out in 2007 between Hamas and Fatah security forces, PIJ and the PFLP sought to mediate.

"Neither [Hamas nor Fatah] has any right to kill Palestinians," Mr. al-Batch said.

Dr. Mohanna blamed the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for making concessions at Oslo that created violent splits in the PLO.

Mr. Arafat "gave it all up for a poisoned cake," he said, referring to the Palestinian Authority.

Dr. Mohanna said reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and the creation of a unity government is a top priority for the PFLP, which remains a member of the PLO, unlike Hamas and PIJ. "There can be no real progress on the Palestinian question if we do not work together," he said.

Mr. al-Batch agreed, even though PIJ will not join a unity government.

"We should stand together until we have independence," he said.

What remains unclear is whether the PFLP and PIJ will abide by a long-term cease-fire with Israel. If one is reached, the two groups retain the capability to shatter any truce with the push of a button.

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