Marie Colvin, Jerusalem
PALESTINIAN fighters have revealed that Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group backed by Iran, is offering to pay for attacks aimed at shattering the fragile truce with Israel.
Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, has made it clear that one suicide bomber in Tel Aviv could prompt him to abandon negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and may even delay Israels disengagement from Gaza, which is planned for July.
In the first concrete evidence of Iranian interference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the men, all on Israels most wanted list, said they had received payments of up to $9,000 (about £4,800) sent by Hezbollah to the West Bank for attacks against Israel during the past four years.
They said that most of the money from Hezbollah had been sent to Islamic Jihad, the militant fundamentalist group that has sent suicide bombers into Israeli cities. The men, members of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades the military wing of Fatah, the secular group founded by Yasser Arafat knew of the payments because they liaised with Islamic Jihad in their area, near the West Bank city of Nablus.
They would send Islamic Jihad money in amounts of something like $4,000, said Alaa Sanakreh, the 27-year-old leader of the group. Its easy they just use Western Union.
He and his fellow fugitives sat in a house in the Balata refugee camp, which is under Israeli security control, their M16 rifles within reach, revolvers stuck down the back of their jeans.
Otherwise they looked like any young men in their trainers and baggy tops, but they were jumpy. Despite the current truce, the Israelis could come after them at any moment. They have a primitive but effective warning system of boys on rooftops overlooking the alleys of the camp.
Sanakreh said he had taken the money from Hezbollah when Arafat had stopped paying Fatahs fighters. We disagreed with the Islamic Jihad people because Hezbollah would send money only for attacking Israel. They did not take care of the shaheed (martyr) families. So we then stopped taking the money.
According to Sanakreh, those who had since been offered money by Hezbollah had turned it down. Their leaders had made it clear that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, should be given a chance to negotiate with the Israelis.
But Sanakreh said he had received a call from a Hezbollah representative in Beirut. Other militants in the West Bank, who would not be named, said the same man had called groups offering money to get them to mount an attack.
Abbas solidified an agreement to keep the peace two weeks ago in Cairo by persuading 13 of the most radical Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to co-operate.
Since then, the price of a bullet in Gaza has fallen from about $9 to $5. The sermons in the mosques are also evidence of a new era. Preachers are no longer calling for sacrifice, but guiding the faithful on which way to vote in Palestinian legislative elections this summer.
Islamic activists are mounting a strong challenge to Fatah and Hamas is debating whether to accept ministries in a post-election Palestinian government negotiating with Israel, which it does not recognise.
Sanakreh said that although he was not privy to politics on any senior level, he believed from his discussions with local Islamic Jihad members that the money offered for fresh attacks came from Iranian intelligence and the Revolutionary Guard.
The money from Hezbollah, which takes its orders from Tehran, appears to be evidence of Irans desire to stop a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
So far, however, the truce is holding. Talking to young fighters in Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the reasons become clear.
Both are fundamentalist Islamic groups. They have similar ideologies but in 1981, when Hamas decided to organise to fight Israel, Islamic Jihad was founded to start fighting immediately.
Hamas is now the larger and more disciplined; Islamic Jihad is the more radical and a greater worry to those involved in the peace process.
We have agreed to give Abu Mazen (Abbas) the chance, said Sheikh Nafez Azzam, a senior Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza.
He had completed three years of medical school before he was imprisoned for being an Islamic activist, and his greatest sadness was that he could never return to his studies. But the Israelis have given nothing. No release of prisoners, no stop to the aggression. The roadblocks are still there, there is no freedom of movement, he said.
Few are more qualified to say the militias have renounced violence to give peace a chance than Abu Jabr, who served nine years in an Israeli prison for fighting with the Hamas militia. Last year his brother Hamam was killed by an Israeli tank shell as he tried to fire a missile.
Palestinians are exhausted by four years of intifada, he said. The streets want Abu Mazen to have a chance for peace negotiations. We agreed to a ceasefire from a position of strength. We still have our guns and we still have our trained men.
The political leadership of Hamas has also decided to exploit the organisations military reputation among Palestinians for political gain.
We fight and sacrifice and then when we turn around the political gains go to the corrupt people in the PA (Palestinian Authority), Abu Jabr said. We decided we should get those gains.
He was adamant that there need be no attacks if the political process continued, although he did not believe it would succeed. My brother died fighting for a Palestinian state, and to mount an attack that hindered this cause would not be avenging him it would be betraying him.
Numerous obstacles still lie ahead. If Sharon assassinates any of our leaders, he will hear from us, Abu Jabr said. And if Abu Mazen tries to take our weapons, it will go badly for him.