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Hamas Names Militant to Key Post

The leader of a group that has attacked Israel will head a new security force in the Gaza Strip. The move is seen as a challenge to Abbas.

April 21, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israel expressed anger and dismay Thursday over the naming of a wanted militant in the Gaza Strip to a senior security post in the new Hamas-dominated Palestinian government.

At the same time, Palestinian Interior Minister Said Siyam, a member of Hamas, announced the formation of a special branch of the security forces, which he said was to be made up mainly of members of militant groups who had participated in attacks against Israel.

The Hamas-led government, which took power three weeks ago, has been locked in an escalating confrontation with Israel. The Jewish state, along with the United States and the European Union, considers the Islamist group a terrorist entity.

Tensions have been growing between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction was defeated by Hamas in parliamentary elections in January.

Abbas, who is considered a moderate, has been trying to consolidate control of the Palestinian security forces under his executive branch. The latest Hamas moves were seen as a direct challenge to those efforts.

Siyam announced by decree the appointment of Jamal abu Samhadana, who heads an umbrella group known as the Popular Resistance Committees, to the newly created post of director-general of the Interior Ministry.

Siyam gave few details about the new security force, but said in a speech delivered in Gaza's oldest mosque that it was aimed at reining in "rampant criminality" in the seaside territory.

Israeli officials said Abu Samhadana's organization, which draws its membership from the ranks of groups including Hamas, had over the last several years been responsible for numerous attacks against Israel, including the planting of roadside bombs in the Gaza Strip and the firing of homemade rockets.

Israel also has accused the group of involvement in an attack on a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Gaza in October 2003 that killed three American security personnel.

Abu Samhadana is believed to have been targeted for assassination by Israel on at least three occasions, one of which left him seriously wounded.

"We don't need more proof than this that Hamas doesn't intend to fight terror," said Raanan Gissin, an official in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Referring to Abu Samhadana, Gissin said, "He's the head of an organization that carried out attacks in coordination [with] Hamas. You pay off people who are serving you. That's what this is about."

However, many Gazans believe that only a figure such as Abu Samhadana, a member of one of the most prominent and powerful Palestinian clans in the coastal strip, has the clout to halt the kidnappings and shootouts that have plagued the territory since Israel withdrew its troops last summer.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Khaled abu Hilal, said the new security branch would include "the elite of our sons: the freedom fighters and the holy warriors ... members of all the resistance branches."

The struggle for control of the security forces could prove a decisive element in the larger contest of wills between Hamas and Abbas.

The two clashed again this week when the militant group Islamic Jihad carried out a suicide attack at an Israeli fast-food restaurant in Tel Aviv, killing nine people in addition to the bomber.

Abbas condemned the attack as contrary to the interests of the Palestinian people; Hamas called it a legitimate form of resistance to the Israeli occupation.

The Hamas stance drew widespread international criticism and appeared likely to deepen the new government's diplomatic isolation.

Several branches of the Palestinian security forces report directly to Abbas. After the Hamas-led Cabinet was inaugurated last month, Abbas named Rashid abu Shbak, a close supporter, to a security post that was to have sweeping powers -- including jurisdiction over forces that previously reported to the interior minister.

Hamas bitterly objected to that appointment, and its naming of Abu Samhadana was seen as an effort to counter Abu Shbak's influence and authority.

Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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