The Mideast's most wanted

Times Staff Writer

Kamel Ghannam, a 31-year-old Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade commander, is the kind of battle-hardened veteran that the Palestinian Authority president needs in his often-violent power struggle with Hamas.

But President Mahmoud Abbas can't have him right now because the warrior is on Israel's "wanted terrorists" list. He is hiding to elude an Israeli army crackdown in the West Bank.

Though Israeli officials would like to see Abbas prevail over Hamas and start negotiating a peace deal with him, they doubt he can fully control militants such as Ghannam and prevent them from turning their guns against Israelis.

That is why Israel is reluctant to give Abbas one of the concessions he wants most: to take hundreds of fighters from his Fatah movement off the wanted list and stop trying to kill or arrest them.

The question of whether Israel should grant such an amnesty for one of the two Palestinian factions is an example of how their armed feud has become entangled with the Israeli-Arab conflict, complicating the Middle East diplomacy that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice resumed Saturday as she arrived in Israel.

While coaxing the Israelis and Palestinians toward peace, the Bush administration is also trying to help Abbas sideline Hamas, the Iran-backed Islamic movement that controls the Palestinian Authority government, resists peace overtures to Israel and is branded by the United States and Israel as a terrorist group.

Rice told reporters on her flight from Washington that she was coming for "intensive consultations" with Israeli and Palestinian leaders but bringing no proposal. She met Saturday with Israel's defense and foreign ministers and was to hold talks with Abbas today and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday.

In a Dec. 23 meeting that U.S. officials helped arrange, Olmert promised Abbas several concessions as the two men began exploring ways to revive full-scale peace talks that collapsed six years ago.

Mood has soured

But the optimistic mood in Abbas' Fatah camp after that meeting has soured. Israel has been slow to keep its promises, and the army has stepped up its raids in the West Bank, seizing more than 20 Palestinians a day over the last week, many of them Fatah members.

Ghannam, the militia commander, has vanished from the streets of Ramallah.

"From what we heard after the meeting, we relaxed a little," he said of Abbas and Olmert's talk. "The leadership told us we could come out of hiding and live normal lives, get jobs and return to our families, but now we find that we cannot do this."

Ghannam spoke at one of several safe houses he uses here. He moves at night from one to another, avoiding the home of his wife and two small children. He feels betrayed.

"The leadership keeps promising things and failing to deliver," he said. "We cannot trust them anymore."

His bitter remarks echo wider criticism that Abbas is weak as a leader and negotiating partner with Israel.

Abbas lacks a solid base within Fatah's splintered ranks, which face a smaller but more disciplined Hamas fighting force. Trying to wrest political control from an elected Hamas government, Abbas has wavered between threats to call new elections and negotiations with Hamas on sharing power.

He risks losing credibility and strengthening Hamas' argument for violent resistance against Israel if he cannot win Israeli concessions through dialogue.

But Olmert is not in a position to deliver much.

Bruised by last summer's inconclusive war in Lebanon and recent corruption scandals, the Israeli leader is unpopular at home and reluctant to take risks. He has yet to make good on his promise to Abbas last month to deliver $100 million in tax and customs revenue that Israel had collected for the Palestinian Authority or to significantly relax travel restrictions for commuters within the West Bank.

Larger issues

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said Abbas would ask Rice to prod Olmert to move beyond peripheral issues and start negotiating the outlines of an agreement to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Rice discussed such an approach Saturday with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who said she agreed that the talks with Abbas should "give the moderate Palestinians a political horizon," a vision of what a final settlement might look like, while providing for Israel's security.

But Olmert and Abbas are at odds over the security issue.

In their meeting, Abbas called for a cease-fire in the West Bank, extending one he and Olmert established in the Gaza Strip in late November. Abbas proposed that Israel withdraw its troops from the West Bank and entrust his Fatah movement with the task of keeping the militants on Israel's wanted list disarmed and under control.

Olmert rejected a West Bank cease-fire. But the two leaders agreed to form a joint committee to review the wanted list, allowing Palestinian officials to lobby for amnesty for some. Israel has yet to name its members to the panel.

Such a committee was set up in 2005 after the Palestinians declared a unilateral cease-fire in their conflict with Israel. The panel reviewed the status of about 500 wanted Fatah militants who had agreed to stop their attacks, but the truce broke down and the meetings stopped late that year.

Reviving the amnesty effort "is Abbas' way of recruiting militant elements against Hamas," said Shmuel Bar, a former intelligence officer who is now with Israel's Institute for Policy and Strategy. "He's saying, 'Hamas cannot get the Israelis off your backs, but I can.' "

Israel's wanted list is compiled by its intelligence agency and distributed to the army and the police. The government has not said how many names are on it.

'Quiet' militants

Palestinian officials involved in the 2005 review say many of the Fatah militants who stopped their attacks that year are still pursued in army raids and take up arms against the Israelis only to defend themselves.

The officials say these "quiet" militants who should get amnesty include Ghannam, who swears he has not fired his M-16 rifle at an Israeli in nearly four years, and Rabe Hamed, a militia commander who was wounded Jan. 4 in a bungled Israeli undercover operation to seize him in Ramallah. Hamed escaped and went into hiding, but four Palestinians were killed in the two-hour gun battle.

Abbas condemned the raid, saying it belied Olmert's promises to lower tensions in the West Bank. It was taken as a signal that the Israeli government had "more or less lost control over the army, which will make political agreements impossible to carry out," said Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit think tank based in Brussels.

Israeli officials say they are not enthusiastic about an amnesty arrangement and doubt one would work. They say Abbas is unwilling or unable to control militants either in Hamas or his own Fatah movement who are still intent on sending suicide bombers into Israel from the West Bank.

The army says 187 militants among the thousands seized in the West Bank last year were allegedly plotting suicide attacks.

A senior army official who meets monthly in the West Bank with one of Abbas' security officials said they never act on his requests to arrest Palestinians suspected of violent activity.

"We sit together, drink, eat, and whatever he might say, I know that he's not going to do anything against the terrorists, and he knows that I know it," said the officer. "And so I continue to arrest his people every day, every night, whenever I like to."

The officer and other Israeli officials said the army made it a priority to pursue active militants, not those on old wanted lists, and was not aiming to dismantle Fatah's militia or weaken Abbas.

"We don't blame Abbas personally," said Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, "but there are those in his Fatah structure who remain hands-on terrorist operatives. If he had the ability to discipline his entire military apparatus, if it weren't such a fragmented organization, the sort of operations we do now would be superfluous."

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Jerusalem and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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