RAMALLAH, West Bank — They emerge from every corner of the dark, dingy house in a slow, painful parade, hobbling on artificial legs, wooden canes and aluminum crutches. The ones in wheelchairs are carried down a flight of stairs to get to the kitchen.
They are the forgotten Fatah loyalists, maimed Palestinian fighters who fled Gaza when Hamas seized control in June.
For the past eight months, they've lived in limbo as their anger toward Hamas gradually has turned into rage at the Palestinian Authority they gave their limbs for but which they now feel has abandoned them once again.
"The Palestinian Authority has treated us worse than Hamas ever did," said Suhair Katas, a 40-year-old former police officer shot twice in the leg by Hamas militants during the fighting last summer.
Building up Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas as a counterweight to Hamas is key to the Bush administration's hopes of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But the two dozen former fighters who've taken up residence in this dank house not far from the Palestinian Authority's headquarters are a symptom of an intractable political malady that still dogs Fatah: Even among its supporters, it retains an image as a band of selfish, corrupt thieves.
"Change in Fatah is beyond God's will," said Ala Yahghi, 44, a Fatah lawmaker from Gaza who fled to Ramallah in June. "We lost Gaza. We lost so many good people. We came here, and sometimes I think that nobody feels that anything has changed."
For more than two years, Abbas has been fighting an uphill battle against Hamas, which first won political control of the Palestinian Authority in free 2006 elections and then claimed military superiority in Gaza last June.
Fatah's most candid leaders concede that they lost the 2006 elections because many in the secular party long led by the late Yasser Arafat had come to be viewed by as corrupt and out of touch.
As disillusionment with Fatah grew, so did support for Hamas, which built a vast network of mosques, schools and social groups to look after the poorest Palestinians.
Then came the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Declaring the action illegal, Abbas fired his Hamas prime minister and created a new cabinet led by independent Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and a team of technocrats.
The United States and Israel moved to shore up Abbas and Fayyad, unfreezing millions in payments, and support for Hamas began to wane.
But the latest polls show that Fatah, Fayyad and Abbas once again are losing ground to Hamas, which got a bump in popularity after demolishing the walls dividing Gaza and Egypt last month. That provided a temporary escape valve for 1.5 million Gaza residents cut off from the outside world.
The plight of hundreds of Fatah loyalists who sought refuge in the West Bank after Hamas defeated them in Gaza hasn't helped.
Osama Abu Nahel once served as a bodyguard for one of Fatah's most notorious strongmen. During the Hamas takeover, Nahel said, he was caught by Hamas fighters, tortured for 24 hours in a mosque and then shot in the leg after they told him he was being set free. When he woke up in the hospital, most of his left leg was gone.
Hamas militants then tried to hunt him down in the hospital and torched his home.
But here in Ramallah he hasn't received his salary for three months. He's frustrated that the Palestinian Authority hasn't gotten him an artificial leg. With no money and no way to get around, he spends his days lying in bed smoking cigarettes.
Hamas, however, has promised to give him all the medical attention he needs if he comes back to Gaza. Nahel said he's nearly ready to accept.
"I trust them 100 percent," said Nahel, "because they are more honest than the Palestinian Authority."
Others in the house have similar stories. Several said they are afraid to go out because they might run into store owners looking to clear their debts.
Yaghi, the Gaza lawmaker now living with his family in Ramallah, said Nahel and the others don't understand the full story. He points out that the Palestinian Authority provides the house where they live and the food they eat. The government took care of most of their medical expenses and this week, Yaghi said, Fayyad approved plans to buy advanced artificial legs for some of the men.
He said many are getting their monthly salaries, though they
send most of the money home to their families stuck in Gaza.
But he admits it's not enough.
"The problem is we in Fatah are moving very slowly," he said.. "But I have to hope, because there is no alternative."
There's no mistaking the sense of betrayal among the wounded, however. For many, it's the second time Fatah has betrayed them. The first was when Fatah commanders fled Gaza in June as Hamas forces closed in. The Fatah fighters left behind paid a heavy price.
Shadi Ahmad, a 23-year-old former Fatah bodyguard, lost both his legs after being captured by Hamas. He was nearly executed.
"Even if they give us gold limbs it's not enough," he said, "because we gave our hearts to the Palestinian Authority."
ON THE WEB
Read Dion Nissenbaum's blog, Checkpoint Jerusalem, at http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/jerusalem/