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Brothers in arms, but not to the end

Ala joined the intifada, and Ahmed followed. But one sought amnesty -- and then peace of mind after the other's violent death.

May 06, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

NABLUS, WEST BANK — Off a nameless alley in the Balata refugee camp, a poster of Ahmed Sanakreh clutching his assault rifle dominates his parents' living room wall.

Ahmed's decision to take up arms came naturally. The teenager idolized his big brother, Ala. The two were inseparable, and when Ala joined the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, Ahmed followed.

But last year, as Palestinian leaders began moving to renew peace talks with Israel, the brothers parted ways. Ala gave up his gun. Ahmed kept fighting.

The young men's divergent paths sketch more than a family drama. They illustrate the achievements and limitations of a campaign by the Palestinian leadership to tame the West Bank's most unruly city, the first testing ground of its ability to govern a would-be independent state.

Palestinian officials have urged Israel to reward their progress in disarming militants in Nablus by ending its military operations here. Israel has refused, saying the city remains what one official calls a "capital of terror." The deadlock is a threat to the Bush administration's goal of an agreement on Palestinian statehood by January.

By many measures, the cleanup of Nablus has been exemplary. Since the Palestinian Authority banned unsanctioned militias across the West Bank in July, 108 gunmen have turned in their weapons in Nablus, according to officials here. Of those, about 40 militants once on Israel's wanted list have been granted a full amnesty by Israel, and many have joined the city's expanded Palestinian Authority security forces.

A police crackdown on gunmen who had used the intifada as a cover for criminal activity has sharply reduced the number of killings, kidnappings and armed robberies here. Most of the city's 170,000 residents now walk the streets without fear, and merchants are keeping their shops open at night for the first time in years. On Saturday the police campaign was extended to Jenin, another militant stronghold in the West Bank.

But none of this makes Israel any safer, officials there insist, because the Palestinian Authority has been selective about cracking down on militant holdouts. The Israeli army continues to subject Nablus to a ring of security checkpoints and near-nightly raids in search of armed men like Ahmed Sanakreh, who it says manufactured explosives and recruited suicide bombers for attacks in Israel.

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Ala and Ahmed Sanakreh grew up poor with three older sisters and two younger brothers in the densely populated Balata camp, home to one of every eight people in Nablus. The older boys were rail thin, dark-skinned and adventurous like their father, a struggling taxi driver who fought in the first intifada in the late 1980s and early '90s.

That uprising ended with the 1993 Oslo accords and Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories it had captured in the 1967 Middle East War. But in 2000, talks on a final peace settlement broke down, bringing a new round of conflict as the Sanakreh boys were coming of age.

The Balata camp was ground zero of the second intifada. Elements of the Palestinian security forces, supporters of Yasser Arafat's secular Fatah movement, met here to form the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed wing of Fatah that went on to wage guerrilla war against the Israeli army and carry out suicide bombings in Israel.

Peer pressure to join the new uprising was strong. Ala, who had become a member of Arafat's Preventive Security force after finishing high school, followed many of his police colleagues into the Al Aqsa ranks in 2002, at age 21.

Ahmed, 14 at the time, was considered too young to join. But the two brothers were extremely close. As fighting raged in the West Bank and Gaza and suicide bombers attacked Israeli cities, killing hundreds on both sides, Ala left home and kept on the move, sleeping in various hide-outs around Nablus. But his little brother stayed in touch.

"I became a wanted man to the Israelis," Ala said. "My brother looked up to me. He was determined to be like me."

Ahmed took up arms in 2004 after the Israeli army, searching for Ala, demolished part of the family's tiny house with a bulldozer. That's the last night the family remembers Ahmed sleeping at home.

From there he went underground, like his brother, to plot attacks and battle frequent Israeli incursions. He and Ala made a pact to live and fight separately, to avoid being killed or captured at the same time.

"He knew what he was getting into," Ala said. "He was ready for it."

By last summer, the intifada was losing steam. Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor as Palestinian Authority president, struck a bargain with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to confront a common foe -- Hamas, the Islamic movement that had taken over Gaza from Abbas' security forces and now threatened his hold on the West Bank.

According to the deal, the Israeli army would stop chasing Al Aqsa militants loyal to Abbas and allow them to join the Fatah-led security forces.

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