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Arafat Takes on Challenge in Wild Streets of Nablus : Mideast: PLO chief must deal with vigilantes as Israel cedes West Bank city. Wealthy backers expected to help.

December 12, 1995|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"To a certain degree, he will be incorporated into the police," Jabali said in a telephone interview. "He will not resist the sulta, and the sulta will help him become a dutiful citizen."

Jabali refused to confirm whether Tabouk is already on the Palestinian Authority's payroll.

But Tabouk, he said, "is not as bad as people say."

Across the West Bank, there are thousands of men who, like Tabouk, threw themselves into the intifada when it erupted in December 1987 and have led violent lives ever since.

In 1987, Tabouk was a 24-year-old house painter from a poor family, living in the crumbling casbah. Amjad abu Rabiegh, his lieutenant, was 16.

In 1988, both joined the Black Panthers, a militant underground unit connected to Fatah.

The Panthers attacked Israeli soldiers and went after Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the Israelis. The Nablus Panthers were finally crushed by the Israelis--most of the group's leaders were killed in shootouts with troops.

The rest, such as Tabouk and Rabiegh, were sentenced to long terms in military prisons.

"I've killed eight men," Rabiegh said, sitting beside Tabouk. "I killed six during the intifada, and for that I was sentenced to six life sentences plus 80 years. I've killed two since I was released from prison in the prisoner exchange in 1994."

Rabiegh and Tabouk speak impassively of the men they have killed and maimed. They put the number they have knee-capped at 29.

"When we see a bad person in the streets, we deal with him," said Tabouk, a slight, soft-spoken man with a fifth-grade education. "I never regretted shooting anyone. I wasn't acting as a bandit--I was acting in the service of the nation."

Tabouk and Rabiegh said they attack only Palestinians now, because the Israeli-Palestinian accord forbids them to attack Israelis and they honor that accord.

Asked whether he fears the arrival of the Palestinian Authority, Tabouk said he welcomes it.

"Sure, we got used to a certain way of life," he said. "I can never see myself giving up my gun. But I will abide by the orders of the sulta and be a policeman."

Tabouk insisted that Arafat will never jail him.

"We know we have a role somehow," he said, "to help build this nation."

Tabouk said he worries more about Arafat forming alliances with the wealthy and forgetting about the work that the foot soldiers--most of them poor men from the cities and refugee camps--did during the intifada. But such is often the way of revolutions, he said, shrugging.

"There are a large number of people who have lost their rights and haven't received any compensation for the sacrifices they have made," he said. "They are still sitting around with nothing to do. It comes down to this: If you have somebody to back you, you get compensation. We have many fighters who got nothing."

At the Center for Palestine Studies, a private Nablus think tank, businessman Said Kanan and academic Khalil Shikaki said Tabouk's prediction is probably not far from wrong.

Both men said they look forward to Arafat's extension of authority in a city they regard as a jungle of lawlessness.

"They are all cowards here in this city," said Shikaki, a political scientist at An-Najah National University who conducts opinion polls among Palestinians. "What we have had here for months is infighting among Fatah commanders, and nobody has put a stop to it."

But bringing thousands of such men into the security forces requires society paying a price, Shikaki said, noting: "The price for people like Tabouk being incorporated into the security apparatus is that it will become larger and larger, at the expense of the man on the street and at the expense of the democratic agenda. Democracy is getting pushed down to the bottom of our agenda."

Summer Assad of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

* MIDEAST TALKS: Clinton meets with Peres, seeks to revive talks with Syria. A18

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