Al Ezariyeh, near Palestinian city Abu Dis
Al Ezariyeh, near Palestinian city Abu Dis Photo by Emil Salman
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Palestinian police are unable to operate in the area around Abu Dis, but Israeli forces don't appear interested in stopping the villages from becoming a breeding ground for drug dealers and crime

It's a conflict over a piece of land that has spun out of control, between two families, in two villages east of Jerusalem. It began with words and shouts, and continued when Saher Mashahera of Sawahera stabbed Samer Muhsen of Abu Dis.

For that he was beaten up by a gang of men in broad daylight, in front of many witnesses and a store's security camera. While he was still in the hospital, in early March this year, a gang of armed men came to Abu Dis to avenge his injury. They set fire to cars, stores and a home and went on a shooting spree with types and quantities of firearms "that even the Palestinian Authority doesn't have." Stores were closed, the streets emptied out, and the authorities of Al-Quds University in Abu Dis hastened to evacuate the thousands of students on the campus. The masked armed men also stormed the campus and fired in all directions. Several students were wounded.

When the death of Mashahera, on March 26, was reported, classes were canceled as a cautionary measure. Samer Muhsen was shot to death in his Ford Transit, also in broad daylight, on May 8. All the residents of Abu Dis and Al Eizariya knew that armed men were approaching to avenge Mashahera's death. The campus and the streets emptied out quickly.

Where were the Palestinian police, who are so highly praised for imposing law and order in Ramallah, Jenin and Nablus? After all, everything happened in broad daylight, in crowded areas, due to a conflict over land that everyone knew about.

But in Abu Dis there is no Palestinian police force. There are a handful of police dressed in civilian clothes, without any weapons, who - together with a flag and the picture of the president - honor an ordinary apartment in the middle of Abu Dis with their presence. The second Oslo Accords, from 1995, state that in Area B the Palestinian police "will assume responsibility for public order for Palestinians," but "Israel shall have the overriding responsibility for security for the purpose of protecting Israelis and confronting the threat of terrorism." The agreement stated that there would be 25 police stations and points in Area B. "The Palestinian Police shall operate freely in populated places where police stations and posts are located." Abu Dis was not included in Area B at the time. The entry of armed policemen into places where there is no police station requires coordination in advance and approval by the Israeli side.

The artificial division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C, and to areas of authority and responsibility that are divided between the PA on the one hand and the Israel Defense Forces and the Civil Administration on the other, was supposed to come to an end in December 1999. Years later, Israel is very meticulous about fulfilling this paragraph of the second Oslo Accords, which limits the activity of the Palestinian police to a minimum - in Area B in general and Abu Dis area in particular - and requires the granting of advance Israeli permission to deploy armed police forces, for a limited time and under special circumstances.

The IDF does not even allow the handful of frustrated policemen in Abu Dis to move to a designated police station (two detention cells with iron bars on the doors, a tiny aperture for air and light, a waiting room, a reception counter and offices ) whose construction was completed less than a year ago, in a new building whose other parts host some other PA offices.

On the day of Mashahera's death, March 26, the IDF allowed about 300 armed and uniformed Palestinian policemen to deploy in the area. They stayed in the police station, and at night spread blankets on the empty floors and slept.

The two murders continue to shock the residents of the area. There was another murder about a year and a half ago. But in an area of about 60,000 people (including the northern village of Al Za'im ), and an additional 11,000 students, with almost no police force it can be viewed as a rather low figure. We can reasonably assume that what protects the society from the bloody escalation of conflicts, in the absence of law-enforcement authorities, is the fact that it is composed of hamulas (extended families ), the fear of blood revenge, the umbrella that every family offers its children, and the traditional bridging practices.

And yet, the residents of this area and PA officials don't shy at describing it as "security chaos," "an absence of law," and "an absence of stability for the citizen." Garbage along the sides of the streets, illegal building additions, double and triple parking, and driving against the direction of traffic are all typical.

In Al Eizariya, Abu Dis and Sawahera there are 700 or 800 old Ford Transits with yellow Israeli license plates, which move in fits and starts and are almost falling apart. They were purchased in the past five or six years directly from their Israeli owners, for the funny sum of about NIS 1,500, and are at least 10 years old. They constitute the main internal public transportation. Licensed minibuses operate on the Ramallah-Abu Dis or the Bethlehem-Abu Dis line.

Patently unsafe

According to the law in the PA (which accords with and is inspired by an Israeli military order ), the Palestinians who live in the occupied territories are not allowed to drive Israeli cars - unless they belong to a spouse and the Palestinian Transportation Ministry has provided all the necessary permits for driving them in Areas A and B. It is also forbidden to buy used cars from Israel which are older than four years. Therefore, those Fords in Abu Dis and its surroundings cannot pass an annual licensing test, and are not insured.

They are patently unsafe. They can be seen climbing in a long convoy along the narrow paths of Abu Dis, overloaded with schoolchildren and students, with thick plumes of suffocating smoke trailing behind them.

In one of those broken-down minibuses, which drove us from Al Eizariya to Al-Quds University, the young driver promised: "Tomorrow I'll get a license for the car, trust me." When asked if he has a driver's license, he replied, "Inshallah [If Allah wills], I'll have one." The residents and the police have the impression that there are more accidents in their district than in other places.

Until the construction of the separation wall that enclosed Sawahera, Abu Dis and Al Eizariya in 2005, the minibuses of a Jerusalem company served the residents of the villages. The wall did not cut this service alone. It also cut the residents' decades-long natural access to their schools, clinics and hospitals, shops, friends, family, property, cultural institutions and jobs in East Jerusalem - a cut that never ceases to hurt. The vacuum created in public transportation was quickly filled by forbidden Fords. Even private individuals purchase old, cheap cars from Israelis which cannot be registered and insured. That is why there is an atmosphere of tolerance toward cars with yellow license plates.

There is no tolerance for the drugs that have begun to spread in this artificial, impoverished border area, but there are no means for dealing with the phenomenon. The employees of Abu Dis's local council point to the drainage openings in the wall. At night people appear next to the wall and wait for some small package to emerge from the Jerusalem side. PA employees in the Abu Dis area talk about the connection between the drug dealers from Israel and East Jerusalem, and the drug problem that has spread among them in the past five years.

The PA has information about the drug dealers and distributors. But the assumption is they are also armed. At best, if unarmed policemen in civilian clothing try to prevent a transaction, the dealers will flee. At worst, they will open fire. When the criminals possess an Israel ID, there is no chance of deterring them. If they are handed in to Israeli authorities - as required by the Oslo Accords - shortly afterward they can be seen in Abu Dis and its surrounds.

"Our communities are drowning in weapons," say PA employees who serve in the area. As part of the vendetta for the beating of Mashahera, M16 rifles (which the PA does not have ) were used. In the event of an armed robbery, "when civilians inform us there is no point us coming [to the crime scene] empty-handed," says a Palestinian policeman. By the time there is coordination with the Israeli side, the robbery will be over. The reputation of the adjacent villages as an area protected from Palestinian law has reached criminals on the West Bank, who now reside there safely. In the three villages there are now gangs connected to drugs, arms, protection money from stores, and parking fees in territory that is not theirs.

No interest in personal safety

This B enclave is surrounded by Israeli security forces: A southern, permanent military checkpoint in Sawahera, which separates the southern and northern West Bank; the northern one is at the exit from Al Eizariya, 20 meters from the well-kept entrance to the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim. Occasionally Israeli police cars are placed there to perform spot checks of cars that enter and leave. Cars belonging to the Israeli Border Police and the IDF also enter the villages.

Raed Barghouti, the appointed chairman of the Abu Dis local council says: "The Israelis are well aware of what is happening and where, and of the consequences and results of the lawlessness. The Israelis have never been interested in the personal safety of the Palestinian residents. But prior to the Oslo Accords, the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization and of the [first] intifada knew how to maintain security and order among our population. The power of the organizations has declined since Oslo in favor of the PA, which is not permitted to operate here."

PA representatives claim that criminals dealing in arms and drugs can walk around freely in sight of IDF and Border Police lookouts and patrols, because they collaborate with the Shin Bet and the police, or have the potential of becoming collaborators with Israel.

After Mashahera was beaten up, suspected attackers - who were residents of Abu Dis - were found, thanks to an in-store security camera. One of them was Samer Muhsen. The Palestinian police arrested the suspects about 20 days later but subsequently released several of them, including Muhsen, who turned out not to be involved. The detainees are awaiting trial in Area A prisons.

On the day of Muhsen's murder on May 8, the police received "open" permission (without a time limitation ) to enter the Abu Dis-Sawahera area, reinforced and armed. They were unable to catch the suspects in Muhsen's murder after they had fled to East Jerusalem, to an address which is known, also to the Israeli authorities.

The police thought they would be able to operate in the area for several days, as was the case on March 26, when Mashahera died. However, at midnight, according to a member of the Palestinian police, they were informed by the military liaison committee that all the forces had to evacuate the area immediately.

Based on their intelligence information, the Palestinian police also tried to carry out operations to find drugs and weapons - as on previous occasions when a permit for the entry of armed policemen was given. Miraculously, the IDF knew about that immediately.

It's true, admit the commanders of the Palestinian police, that such behavior contradicts the outdated agreements written in the Oslo Accords: "We are obliged to carry out only the activity for which we received the permit. But why should it bother Israel if we take action against dealers in drugs and weapons?"

The response of the authorities

Last Tuesday Haaretz asked the IDF spokespersons, the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Shin Bet and the police whether they are aware of the situation, and what their reactions are to the claims of the Palestinian police that they are prevented from combating crime in the Abu Dis area because of the connection between the criminals and collaboration with Israel.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories replied orally that the area is not in its area of jurisdiction. The Judea and Samaria police district said: "By dint of agreements there are no routine enforcement activities of the Israel Police in the village of Abu Dis, except in cases where Israeli citizens are involved in the crimes." As of two days ago, there was no reply from the Shin Bet and the IDF spokespersons.