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Anarchy Rules in the Palestinian Hub of Nablus

March 10, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

NABLUS, West Bank — Ghassan Shaka paints a frightening portrait of the conditions that he says have turned this once-thriving Palestinian business hub into a gun-crazy den of lawlessness.

Gangs rule the streets of the West Bank's largest city, shooting rivals, strong-arming merchants and carrying out beatings and kidnappings. Residents have no faith in the toothless police force, which shows little stomach for stopping the disorder. The courts are a joke.

Nablus, Shaka says, is a hopeless mess.

And he's the city's mayor.

Shaka, joined by the rest of the 14-member City Council, resigned late last month to protest mounting impunity and the Palestinian Authority's inability to bring order to the streets.

"We are losing control," Shaka said during an interview in his office, surrounded by half a dozen city officials who also tendered resignations, effective May 1. "We are about to collapse."

Shaka's brother, Buraq, was gunned down on a sidewalk in late November -- a slaying that is unsolved but widely thought to be the work of one of the numerous militias tied to one Palestinian political faction or another.

Throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, officials and analysts say, violent episodes reflect deepening internal power struggles and may signal the faltering grasp of the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat. The outcome is important to the Palestinians and Israel because a collapse of authority could strengthen militant groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that have carried out dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks.

A longtime Arafat advisor was shot to death March 2 outside his Gaza City office in an incident that probably was a byproduct of the factional strife.

Arafat's Fatah faction appears increasingly fault-riven, with younger members agitating for reforms and a change in the leadership that has been in place for 15 years. Dozens have quit in protest. Arafat has promised to convene a meeting of the movement's General Assembly -- which would hold elections for new leaders -- within a year, but many doubt that such a gathering will take place.

Israeli Fears

The skirmishing leaves many Israeli officials concerned about the possibility of all-out chaos in the Gaza Strip -- or a takeover by Hamas -- if Israel pulls out its forces. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has talked of evacuating most of the settlements there.

"Fatah has broken into different factions, gangs, loyalties and so on," said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Israel's Bar Ilan University. "There is no one Fatah anymore."

Iyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist and human rights activist in the Gaza Strip, described the turmoil as "a serious situation."

"But the Palestinian people will not opt for civil war. Rather, this is the first stage of general collapse for the PA," he said, referring to the Palestinian Authority.

The divisions have pitted factions against one another, sometimes violently. Many in Nablus suspect that Shaka's brother was killed by a Fatah gunman as a way to send a message to the mayor, a Fatah stalwart with ties to Arafat.

The mayor says he thinks he knows who carried out the slaying, but he declines to name anyone publicly.

"When the right time comes, I'll bring them to justice," he said. "Whenever we have law and order."

It may be a long wait. Set between dramatic ridges in the northern West Bank, Nablus long has been known as a tough town, although it is also the business capital and home to the Palestinian stock exchange. Armed cells for years sprouted from the Balata refugee camp and the mazelike casbah, the old city section that is now a frequent site for Israeli military raids.

But residents and officials say law and order has disappeared during the 41-month Palestinian uprising. Much of the blame, they say, rests with Israel and its frequent military incursions to arrest suspected militants or demolish the homes of suicide bombers.

The raids and closures have throttled commerce and created an atmosphere of anarchy that plays into the hands of armed thugs, the officials argue. Under Israeli orders, Palestinian police in Nablus and most West Bank cities are not allowed to carry weapons.

"The Israelis also take the responsibility because they're not allowing the security forces to do their work," Deputy Mayor Adnan O. Derhalli said.

The police are an unimposing presence on the streets of Nablus. Officer Omar Ishdieyeh stood in front of the police station on a recent day, his hatband cinched by staples. Black stitching betrayed a rough repair job on his royal-blue uniform pants.

Ishdieyeh, who walks five miles past Israeli checkpoints to get from his village to work in Nablus each day, said officers started wearing their uniforms two weeks ago in defiance of an Israeli order.

"If an army jeep comes, we try to disappear quickly," he said.

An Israeli army spokesman denied that Palestinian police in Nablus were barred from wearing uniforms, but said they were prohibited from carrying weapons.

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