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A rifle round that costs NIS 0.50 in Israel costs NIS 4 in Nablus. A rifle that costs NIS 20,000 in Nablus is sold in Israel for NIS 5,000, according to three young men who presented themselves as gun dealers.

One of them, about 21, also presented himself as an activist of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. The other two serve in the Palestinian security forces.

They said the usual things - that the weapons and munitions in Nablus (and the West Bank in general) came from Israel, and that there were many ways to smuggle them despite the barricades and roadblocks as well as strict military inspection of all incoming and outgoing merchandise and the merchants' permits. They spoke about Israeli mediators, soldiers who sold their weapons and soldiers who could be bribed with a bit of hash. They said there were 20 or 30 big arms dealers who smuggled hundreds and thousands of shekels worth of weapons, and small dealers, like themselves, who made do with a few thousand shekels.

Dozens of arms dealers are making a living in Nablus. There must be a lot of money in that besieged, strangled city, many of whose residents have stood in line over the past two months for up to NIS 300 in food stamps, and cannot pay their water and electricity bills.

Nablus was known for its thriving arms trade even before the outburst of the present intifada. Balata refugee camp residents and some members of the city's veteran families used to accuse each other of profiteering.

The refugees accused members of certain veteran families of maintaining good relations with Israeli military authorities, so they could smuggle arms. The veterans accused the refugees of imposing a reign of fear and terror.

Both sides were probably right. Both sides are identified with Fatah. It was said that for generations, Nablus' wealthy families kept armed gangs to protect themselves from each other. Now, people further down the political and financial pecking order also feel the need for armed protection.

Other people are arming themselves to increase their political influence in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority vis-a-vis other political groups in the movement. The more weapons there are in town, the greater the incentive to import more, to protect those who don't have them.

The three young arms dealers, the oldest of whom was 24, said the weapons had a national and commercial rate. The first, lower one, was intended for "resistance to the occupation." The second was for various personal needs. The weapon that killed a senior Hamas activist two weeks ago as he was leaving the mosque, and injured about four other activists was probably bought at the national rate. So were the weapons of Hamas members who came out to express their fury against Fatah. Nablus residents got no sleep on the night between October 18 and 19, as rival groups exchanged fire in the streets.

A well-known Fatah figure, affiliated with one of the many al-Aqsa Brigade groups, walked into a Nablus post office branch two weeks ago carrying a rifle that was also, one may assume, "national."

On that day, the city's post office branches were distributing the allowances of bereaved families, after months during which such payments had been frozen, together with the wages of PA civil servants. Elderly parents stood in line waiting for their NIS 600. Suddenly that well-known person appeared, and demanded that the clerk hand him the allowances of some 60 families in cash. He told people there that they could come to him and receive their money. One woman begged him to split the money with her down the middle. He agreed, but threatened to harm anyone who testified against him or mentioned his name.

This report reached Palestinian security men and frustrated, angry Fatah loyalists, but went no further. For who would dare to ask the known gunman to comment in order to publish a newspaper report?

The Palestinian police say they cannot impose order because the IDF does not permit its people to patrol the city with weapons. But this argument ignores the symbiotic and personal affiliation between the terror-spreading gunmen and security services, and between the gunmen and parts of Fatah. The affiliation is an old one, but is cause for greater concern now. How can Fatah reassert its authority over Palestinians in the territories? It cannot even protect the public from those who present themselves as Fatah men, and reap political and financial gain from the chaos they themselves sow.