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GAZA - Leading Islamic Jihad figure Khaled al-Batch is over fifty and has been a part of the Palestinian struggle for years. His organization is deemed a terrorist group not only by the United States and Israel, but also by the rest of the world.
The senior official’s activity in the group hasn’t exactly discouraged such a label. He helped orchestrate a series of bombings in Israel that ravaged the country during the outbreak of the Second Intifada.
And now Batch, sitting barefoot in his Gaza office, says he’s convinced the Third Palestinian Intifada will erupt in a matter of months.
“There are only valid targets over there,” he says, in response to a question about the possibility of attacks on Israeli civilians.
In many ways, the current atmosphere in the Palestinian Territories is ripe for conflict. The United States recently withdrew funds directed to Fatah since 2007. As a result, more than 150,000 Fatah employees received only half their salaries in July, causing tensions to escalate throughout the party’s ranks.
The US funds extraction comes in the wake of a tentative rapprochement deal struck between Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah, the two primary political players in the Palestinian Territories. Egypt’s Supreme Military Council brokered a deal this year in Cairo to end a four-year dispute between the two factions.
“The negotiations were fair and balanced in Cairo. That’s why we finally came to an agreement,” says Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip Fawzi Barhum. “The former Egyptian regime neglected Hamas and used double standards during the talks…[they] sabotaged the reconciliation in order to serve Israel's interest.”
After popular revolutions dislodged two pro-West governments in the region, the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, the whole picture of the Middle East has changed, Barhum says. Now, he says, there is general support for the Palestinian cause.
And now Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, expects strong support from Egypt in the struggle against Israel. Egyptian policy change toward the Palestinians has already taken shape. In May, the Rafah crossing re-opened, after five years of blockade.
Fatah is being proactive on more than one front, as well. In response to the loss of US funds, party officials threw out a 20-year policy of negotiating with Israel through US supervision and now vow to unilaterally seek UN recognition as a member state later this year.
“They realized the bilateral talks led them to nowhere. This is why they will try a unilateral move with the UN,” says Barhum. “We have agreed to delay the real reconciliation and the forming of the transitional government until the general assembly is over. The US will veto our request for sure. This will generate a vacuum in our political options. The chances for a third intifada are high, ” he adds.
The majority of significantly armed factions in the Gaza Strip, like the Naser Salahadin Brigades and Islamic Jihad, agree with Barhum's assessment. Leaders, such as Khaled Batch, claim they are in the process of readying themselves for armed uprising.
“In spite of all the efforts of Israel, Hamas and its allies managed to get weapons through smuggling,” says Walla Karaja, a journalist working for the UNRWA. “Since the reconciliation, the military trainings have increased in the Strip, and, we heard, that huge quantities of weapons arrived from the outside.”
After several days of negotiations, Al-Masry Al-Youm recently met one leader of Nasser Salahadin Brigades, under strict conditions. In the Laurate woods of Nuseirat, two armed and masked men escorted Al-Masry Al-Youm - after placing a hood over the reporter’s head - to an exit point of one of the Gaza Strip’s largest tunnels.
These tunnels are not made for smuggling. They are constructed to connect all the strategic points of the Strip underground. One brigade member, insisting on using an alias, called himself Abu Seiar, the father of the sword. He had just returned from Syria, after receiving military training there. He was taught, he claimed, how to use anti-tank weaponry, among other skills.
“I was called home because I'm an expert in building non-commercial tunnels,” says Abu Seiar, whose job now is to strengthen the existing tunnels and attach new strategic exits. “Others have returned from Lebanon and Iran. Everyone knows that something is going to happen.”
Although officials with Qassam Brigades are reluctant to speak with the media, smugglers on the Palestinian side of Rafah are more than willing to talk.
“We haven't felt anything from the so-called border opening yet…business as usual,” says Omar, a proud owner of two commercial tunnels in his home in Rafah. Omar also requested a pseudonym. “But one thing is for sure…Hamas reintroduced the taxing of cigarettes and other luxury products from Egypt, because they badly need money. There is a huge movement in their tunnels at nighttime as well.”
It seems preparations in Gaza are indisputably underway for another round of conflict, but the incident that will spur a call to arms cannot be forecasted.
The Israeli public, in the wake of the Second Intifada’s outbreak, blamed the Palestinian Liberation Organization for triggering the violence after the second Camp David summit ended in abject failure. In many ways, the political situation today is very similar to 2000. No one expects the UN to officially endorse Palestinian statehood. With negotiations beyond moribund, all political options are poised to be exhausted.
But talking with people on the streets of Gaza, its obvious there isn’t widespread support for another full-fledged uprising. In fact, not one ordinary Palestinian I met leveled support for such a campaign.
“Look at the conditions how we live,” some say. “This is the result of the first and second uprising. If we start a new one, they [the Israelis] will cut our throat.”