February 8, 2004.
NABLUS, West Bank – To war-weary Palestinian eyes in this, the
largest of the West Bank cities, it is hard to tell the good guys from
the bad any more.
Palestinians know the nearby Israeli army is the enemy. But
as for those among their own people who can be counted as
Palestinian patriots, few could say with conviction.
Such is the dissolute state of Nablus, where more than 30
Palestinians have died in recent months, the victims of bullets fired
by other Palestinians.
The killing spree has brought into high relief the existence in
Nablus of the other Palestinian struggle, a hidden war that is as
much about organized crime as it is about national resistance.
Buoyed by what is now a total absence of islah, or public order, a
fragmented array of heavily armed criminal gangs has turned the
intifada on itself.
As many as eight separate factions in Nablus and the three refugee
camps that ring the city – lay claim to the title Al Aqsa Martyrs
Brigades, the radical offshoot of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.
But the name doesn’t mean much these days, not when so
many who lay claim to it are fighting for the spoils of criminal
racketeering, car thefts, drugs, gun running and extortion.
“It is a mafia that controls our streets now,” says Mayoub Abu
Saliyeh, who last week witnessed a bloody turf battle from the
vantage of the gas station he manages. “People get killed, nobody
gets arrested, because there is no law, no security.
“I have never seen my city like this before, where any man
with a gun can do whatever he wants. It is a dream for Israel, the
way Palestinians quarrel with each other.”
In a city ravaged by repeated Israeli armoured incursions since the
onset of the September, 2000, intifada, few here hesitate to blame
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the collapse of law and order.
But as the chaos deepens, many are beginning to point just as
strongly at Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.
A senior Western diplomatic source in Ramallah, the de facto capital
of the Palestinian West Bank, likens the situation in Nablus to
“Basically, you’ve got competing factions so well armed, so
beyond control and so preoccupied with each other, they are
effectively doing Israel’s job for it,” said the source, who spoke on
condition of anonymity.
“The danger to Palestinians is obvious. But the danger for
Israel is there as well. People in Ramallah are complaining that Israel
has been enjoying a kind of five-star occupation – having troops
throughout the West Bank without the expense of being responsible
for the people being occupied.
“The question is: How much more can Palestinians take
before it all falls apart?
“If the Palestinian Authority collapses, Israel will have no
choice to step in and take responsibility. That means hospitals,
schools, policing, civil administration. The expense alone is a burden
Israel can ill afford.”
Palestinian legislator Moa’wah al-Masri, an outspoken critic of
Arafat’s leadership, rattles off anecdotes he has witnessed from his
office in downtown Nablus.
“For the past two weeks,” he says, “the Palestinian police
have gone through the motions of spreading out in the streets to
create the appearance they have things under control. But people
make fun of them.
“Last week, one young man ran up to three of them and said:
`Be careful, the Israeli army is coming.’ They dropped their guns on
the spot, tore off their uniforms and ran away, terrified.
“There was no army coming, of course. It was a ruse. And by
the time they returned, their guns had vanished.”
Masri holds Arafat directly responsible for the lawlessness, darkly
suggesting the Palestinian leader is a direct beneficiary of the warring
“Arafat is not concerned with rule of law,” says Masri. “He
loves the fact that the leaders of the factions are beholden to him.
“All must beseech him, pay fealty. Because they know, if he
truly had the will to do something about it, he could have the
situation under control within 24 hours.”
Exactly who is fighting whom is a question few dare to answer on
Among the estimated 32 recent slayings were innocent
bystanders, suspected Israeli collaborators and, in one particularly
high-profile case, Ahmad Buraq Shaqa, the businessman brother of
Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shaqa.
The Nov. 25 ambush of Shaqa had all the earmarks of a gangland
assassination. The fact that he was driving a car that belonged to his
brother raised suspicions the mayor was the intended target.
Both Mayor Shaqa and Nablus Governor Mahmoud Aloul, who
survived a recent firebomb attack on his car, deny allegations linking
them to the city’s crime rings.
The mayor now travels in an armoured car and is surrounded
by gunmen day and night.
Sources in Balata refugee camp on the southeastern outskirts of
Nablus say the Palestinian police would fall short in firepower, even
if they were backed by the political will to act.
Various gangs operating in Nablus, they say, travel openly
with German-made Heckler & Koch MP-5s, one of the world’s most
sought after sub-machineguns. Others carry M-16s – Israeli M-16s –
smuggled and sold at prices upwards of 18,000 shekels ($5,500
Canadian) on the black market.
Against such superior firepower, Arafat’s Palestinian Authority
policemen carry cheap, notoriously inaccurate AK-47s that are
manufactured in Egypt. Small wonder the rank-and-file has no
stomach for a confrontation.
“This is supposedly a city under siege, with the Israeli
searching everyone coming in at the checkpoint,” says the Balata
“Yet somehow, 20 to 30 stolen cars arrive from Israel every
day. Somehow, guns come from Israel and land on the black market
in Nablus. You figure it out.
“There is a mafia in Nablus and it couldn’t exist without help
from the mafia in Israel. You have a war between the Israelis and
Palestinians, but you have collaboration between the criminals on
Masri’s solution is as simple as it is drastic. If the Palestinian
Authority is unable to restore law and order, he says, it has no other
choice but to “liquidate itself.”
“Why give Israel a free occupation? Why bother presenting to
the world a picture that implies Israel is facing another country? I
believe if Arafat really cared, he would show the moral authority to
walk away and let Israel fix this mess.
“As long as the occupation continues, Israel would have no
choice but to accept the responsibility for a civil administration like
the kind they ran before the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
“The financial aspect of this is in the range of 10 billion
shekels a year ($3 billion). Israel would have no choice but to absorb
The Palestinian Authority has been scrambling to address the
criticism, which was capped yesterday when more than 300 angry
rank-and-file Fatah members resigned en masse to protest internal
strife and corruption.
In an earlier telephone conference call with Canadian journalists,
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia acknowledged the
restoration of law and order as an urgent priority, not only for Nablus
but also for the other cities of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
And on Wednesday, PA national security adviser Jibril Rajoub told a
press briefing in Ramallah about a wholesale reorganization of
Palestinian security services, designed to unify nine disparate
agencies under a unified command.
The Star obtained access to a sheaf of classified PA documents
detailing the reforms later that day and, on paper, the changes are
A command flow chart indicates the heads of each Palestinian
security agency are to be effectively removed from direct command,
serving instead in an advisory capacity similar to that of the U.S.
Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The real power would instead be disseminated from two new Central
Operations centres – one each in the West Bank and Gaza – charged
with coordinating all police activity in the territories.
The document comes complete with an ambitious, 18-point
task list addressing everything from car thefts to the seizure of illegal
But will the paper translate into real change on the ground?
“The plan is comprehensive. It means big change,” one
Western diplomatic source told the Star.
“A lot of this came because of intense lobbying on the part of
“It is a serious plan, and there is serious pressure to implement it. And in the final analysis, it can only work with Israeli
“There seems to be a tacit understanding the Israeli army will
allow the Palestinian police to properly deploy inside the cities. Both
sides are under orders not to shoot. But we will have to wait and
PA security boss Rajoub cautioned reporters against unrealistic
expectations in his Wednesday briefing.
“If the Israelis withdraw from any (West Bank) city, we have
the capabilities and the political resolution and all the determination
to enforce law and order in these areas,” he said.
“But as long as they continue their policy of assassinations
and incursions, I don’t think we can do anything.”
Another brazen gangland-style attack in Gaza City on Thursday
underscored the depth of the crisis.
A group of armed men burst into Palestinian police
headquarters, physically assaulted the ranking chief, Maj.-Gen.
Ghazial-Jabali, then opened fire to cover their retreat, wounding at
least 13 bystanders.
Members of the PA Preventive Security Service were blamed for the
attack, described by sources in Gaza as a “personal dispute that got
out of control.”
Still, in a situation so dissolute that the police are attacking
themselves, it is little wonder so many Palestinians regard the notion
that authority exists in any form whatever as beneath contempt.
At his Nablus gas station, Saliyeh fears that order may never return.
“All we want is the law,” he says. “Just bring us one good
man to be in charge. One good man is all. Let it grow from there.”