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Militant says he would rather fight Israel than divide his people

RAFAH, Gaza Strip—The Gaza Strip militant in the middle of a widening rift between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas-dominated government said Sunday that he would step aside if his appointment to a top security post was going to further inflame tensions.

In his first interview with an American newspaper chain since being embraced by the Hamas-led cabinet, Jamal Abu Samhadana told Knight Ridder that he would continue leading attacks against Israel instead of taking on the new post.

"I don't want to be part of the problems between the government and the president," Abu Samhadana said while cradling a machine gun in his lap. "I don't need this job and the best position a Palestinian can reach is the role of a resistance fighter, which I already am."

Abu Samhadana, one of Israel's most wanted militants, has emerged as a central figure in a volatile struggle between Abbas and Hamas for control over the Palestinian security forces.

On Thursday, the new Hamas-dominated government named Abu Samhadana as an Interior Ministry adviser, giving the 43-year-old wide latitude to oversee Palestinian security forces.

Israeli and American officials denounced the move as a clear sign that the Palestinian government supports terrorism. Almost immediately, Abbas rejected Abu Samhadana's appointment as illegal and vetoed government plans to create a new security force comprised of militants.

That decision drew an angry response from Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who harshly criticized Abbas in a speech that sparked violent clashes in the Gaza Strip between armed members of the rival political forces.

While both sides worked to contain the tensions on Sunday, new fighting broke out in Gaza City when armed gunmen rushed the Health Ministry and demanded that its top official allow one of their ailing relatives to leave the Gaza Strip for treatment.

Palestinian police, backed for the first time by Hamas militants, rushed to the ministry where the ensuing gunfight left at least three people injured.

Hamas has vowed to crack down on the persistent street clashes and Abu Samhadana accused Palestinian lawmaker Mohammed Dahlan, a powerful member of Abbas' Fatah party, of fomenting the chaos.

Abu Samhadana said he planned to use the new post to help Hamas gain control of the violence and to confront corruption within the security services.

Should he be allowed to assume his new post, Abu Samhadana said he would still lead his Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella militant group actively engaged in fighting Israel.

During the hour-long interview in an apartment sitting room located on a darkened Rafah street, Abu Samhadana saved his harshest criticism for the United States, which he blamed for stoking widespread anger and resentment across the Middle East with its support for Israel and its war in Iraq.

"We are very happy for every American soldier who is killed anywhere in the world," he said. "Because Americans are responsible for the misery in all the countries in the world."

Over the last six years, Abu Samhadana's group has been linked to a series of high-profile attacks, including the first successful guerrilla assault on tough Israeli tanks and last year's assassination of a widely reviled former Palestinian security adviser.

Abu Samhadana's role has made him one of Israel's most wanted militants. In December 2004, he narrowly survived an attempted assassination when Israel fired a missile at his car in the Gaza Strip.

A jagged scar cuts across his nearly useless right hand, which he said was injured when a rocket he was trying to use in a 2001 attack malfunctioned.

Because of the constant threat, Abu Samhadana travels around clandestinely and rarely stays long in one place. Even after his government appointment, Israeli officials said Abu Samhadana was still a legitimate target.

Appearing relaxed and cheerful and surrounded by friends and allies, Abu Samhadana was barefooted wearing a green army jacket. A machine gun was across his lap and a pistol peeked out from his left hip.

America also has blamed Abu Samhadana's group for the 2003 bombing of a U.S. convoy at the Israel-Gaza Strip border that killed three American security personnel.

Several militants with the committee were arrested by Palestinian police but later released due to lack of evidence.

Abu Samhadana denied that his group was behind the attack.

"We consider this an honor we do not deserve," he said.

While he praised both the convoy bombing and last week's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed nine people, Abu Samhadana said both were logical extensions of American and Israeli attacks on Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East.

"I hope the headline will be: Overthrow the terrorist administration in Washington," he said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-MILITANT

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