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The next Palestinian powder keg

W. Bank turmoil may surge if Hamas fighters answer Fatah militias

June 21, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

NABLUS, WEST BANK — For much of the last week, Fatah gunmen in black masks have ruled the streets here, abducting rivals, looting or burning their property, and intimidating elected officials inside the Hamas-run City Hall.

Demoralized by Hamas' military defeat of their comrades in the Gaza Strip, the gunmen are sowing retribution across the West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, said Wednesday that the lawlessness was the most pressing problem facing the emergency government he appointed Sunday in the West Bank.

"We have seen chaos here before, but this is different. The police have lost control," said Hafez Shaheen, a Hamas municipal legislator who has abandoned his City Hall office in Nablus, the largest West Bank city and epicenter of the violence. "People are afraid for their lives."

U.S. and Israeli officials, stung by the Islamic movement's takeover in Gaza, have begun to treat the two Palestinian territories as separate entities. They are squeezing Gaza, and have pledged to spend money and diplomatic effort on the West Bank, in hope of turning it into a model new Palestine that can make peace with Israel.

The violence here reflects a complex reality posing more troublesome scenarios.

Most of the attacks have been carried out by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a decentralized Fatah militia that is nominally loyal to Abbas but acts beyond his control. Like Hamas, it is branded by Israel and the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

The victims of the rampage apparently are unarmed Hamas sympathizers or members of the Islamist group, which enjoys wide popular support in the largely secular West Bank as an alternative to the corrupt rule of the secular Fatah.

Hamas won the mayoral race in Nablus and at least a share of municipal power in five other West Bank cities in elections in 2004 and 2005.

In January 2006 voters ended Fatah's control of the legislature for the West Bank and Gaza. The West cut off aid because Hamas does not recognize Israel or previous accords, and has not renounced violence.

The boycott cost the movement some of its popularity here, but it still has deep roots in civil society and remains in charge of Nablus' municipal affairs.

"Hamas has a power base and popular backing here," said Taysir Nasrallah, a member of Fatah's leadership council from Nablus. "You can't erase that with a decree."

Less visible here is Hamas' armed wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, which led last week's Gaza takeover.

Hamas' armed strength in the West Bank is hard to assess, but Palestinian officials believe the group has several hundred fighters organized in sleeper cells here, many of them in Nablus.

City officials worry that the Fatah assaults will provoke an armed Hamas response, plunging Nablus into Gaza-style mayhem.

"It's not a matter of who's stronger," said Yahya Arafat, a Fatah member of the city council. "There's enough force on both sides to destroy us all."

Nablus already is a battleground for three contending forces. The Israeli army raids the city of 180,000 people almost nightly in search of Fatah and Hamas militants.

"Nablus is the capital of terror of the West Bank," said Capt. Noa Meir, an Israeli army spokeswoman.

The Al Aqsa militia arose in 2000, at the start of the second intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation. But many of Al Aqsa's units have since turned to armed robbery and extortion.

Every elected Palestinian leader pledges to rein in the militia, only to back away when it stands up to fight off the Israelis or Hamas.

Nasrallah, the Fatah leader, said Nablus police were starting to crack down on Al Aqsa-based car theft rings when the fighting in Gaza gave the militants a reprieve.

"Not only did the police lay off Al Aqsa, the two have been working together to burn down Hamas offices," Nasrallah said. "It's the same when Al Aqsa is fighting the Israelis. The struggle makes the brigade legitimate, so the police can't touch it. They don't want to seem to be doing Israel's dirty work."

Othman Mosleh, a prominent member of the Nablus Chamber of Commerce, is a large, graying man who is not accustomed to being treated with disrespect. Yet while sitting in his wholesale distributorship Saturday, he looked up into the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle and heard five young masked men ordering him and his brother Salah, in an insulting tone, to turn over their entire stock of imported cigarettes.

The masked Al Aqsa militiamen also made off with a truckload of groceries, saddling the Mosleh brothers with $15,000 in losses.

Salah Mosleh said a politically motivated crime wave against them and other pro-Hamas businessmen was forcing him to close some of the family's enterprises and lay off 15 of its 38 employees, contributing to a recession that has left two of five working-age Nablus residents jobless.

"I hate to put them in that situation," he said. "People without jobs steal or join armed gangs."

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