ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Amid tensions, Fatah offshoot accuses Islamist rivals of turning West Bank into Syria

In video, Tanzim militia charges factions with seditious ties to Iran; PA officials claim Hamas is working with Salafi-jihadist forces in Lebanon camp

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Members of the pro-Fatah Tanzim militia reading out a statement against the Iran ties of rival Islamist Palestinian factions, West Bank, September 19 (via Twitter, screenshot)
Members of the pro-Fatah Tanzim militia reading out a statement against the Iran ties of rival Islamist Palestinian factions, West Bank, September 19 (via Twitter, screenshot)

In a video circulating on social media since Tuesday, a dozen militants of the pro-Fatah Tanzim militia accused a rival Islamist armed group of turning the West Bank into “Syria, Yemen and Iraq” — three Middle East countries wracked by civil wars over the past decade, with the involvement of Tehran.

In their video statement, the Tanzim members accused the Jenin Battalion — a local wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group — of conspiring with “Persian Shi’ite Iran” against Fatah, the “only Sunni weapon in the Arab homeland,” in a bid to sow strife and chaos among the Palestinian people.

The Tanzim militia is an armed offshoot of Fatah founded in 1995 by Yasser Arafat to counter rival Palestinian Islamist groups. The militia, officially headed by Marwan Barghouti who is imprisoned in Israel for deadly terror attacks, has sought to siphon support from Islamist groups towards the PA leadership.

The Tanzim message introduced an atypical anti-Shiite element in Fatah’s rhetoric against opposing factions, evoking common anti-Shiite canards such as their “insulting the Companions of the Prophet [Muhammad]” — a reference to a theological dispute between Sunnis and Shiites on the legitimate successors to the Prophet.

Both the PIJ and Hamas, Fatah’s most prominent Islamist rivals, have made no secret of their close collaboration with Tehran, which supplies them with money and weaponry. Leaders of the two groups met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Damascus in May and again with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in early September in Beirut. Last year, PIJ chief Ziad Nakhaleh said his organization took “direct orders” from the Quds Force’s late commander Qassem Soleimani and that rockets it used to attack Israel were provided by Iran.

The video statement came amid escalating tensions between the PA’s security services and terror groups in the northern West Bank. The Jenin Battalion is suspected of being behind recent attacks against PA security forces, which included shooting toward their headquarters in Jenin and a shooting against a patrol car of the customs police on September 18, in which four agents were wounded.

In response, the PA announced it had compiled a list of 30 Jenin Battalion members it is about to arrest, including some who are on Israel’s top wanted list, continuing an ongoing crackdown on the terror group.

The Jenin Battalion is also responsible for Tuesday’s clashes with the IDF in the Jenin refugee camp, in which four operatives were killed.

The Tanzim video came one day after the Fatah branch in Jenin issued a statement accusing its internal enemies of collaboration with an “Iranian-Islamic State” axis (a contradiction, as Islamic State was born out of antagonism to Shiites and has carried out terror attacks inside Iran).

The allegation indicated an attempt by PA officials to group together radical Islamist rivals on multiple fronts. For nearly two months, Fatah forces have been engaged in another armed confrontation outside the West Bank, in the Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, which erupted when a Fatah general was killed in late July.

Analysts on the PA’s Awda TV channel have claimed that the clashes between Fatah security forces and Islamist groups have been fueled by terrorist Salafi-jihadi elements infiltrating into Lebanon from Syria, with links to Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Such radical groups are referred to in Arabic as takfiri, for their practice of excommunicating (takfir) any Muslim who does not subjugate themselves to their extremist interpretation of religion.

The presence of such extremist groups is an established fact in Ein el-Hilweh, for instance, the camp was the birthplace of a radical Salafi group called Osbat al-Ansar, which was declared a terror organization after 9/11 for its ties to al-Qaeda, and bombed nightclubs and liquor stores in an attempt to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon.

Various PA sources have accused Hamas members in the Lebanese camp of having entered into a collaboration with jihadist groups. In an editorial in the PA’s official newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida, Fatah Revolutionary Council member Muwaffaq Matar accused the “Islamic State-like” Hamas of using the support of other more radical terror groups in Ein el-Hilweh to advance its plans to control the Palestinian political and security leadership, at the expense of the real goal — the struggle for Palestinian “liberation.”

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