Speaking off the record, residents in Nablus admit that they welcomed the curfew that Israel Defense Forces troops enforced in their city on Thursday. The curfew prevented, or at least delayed, a collapse of internal order and security in the large West Bank city, a locale which in recent months has been convulsed by a series of killings and reprisal murders and by shooting sprees on the street perpetrated by gunmen whose aim is to intimidate the locals or to carve out turf for themselves.
In Nablus, residents in recent days had little patience for reports of the musical chairs game being played in the Palestinian Authority compound in Ramallah. Jibril Rajoub or Mohammed Dahlan, Nasser Yussef or Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) - anyone can grab the reins of power, people say in Nablus, just as long as he does something about the state of siege and terror that grips the city.
And this reign of terror, local residents emphasize, has not been caused by Israel's army: the problem is roaming, armed Palestinians who claim they belong to the Fatah movement. Just let some Palestinian leader do something about these gunmen, the locals say.
It's not easy for residents to admit that they were happy about the curfew. At the end of the day, the policy has been enforced by the same Israeli army which has (in past days) damaged seven of 14 health clinics in a compound operated by the non-government Work Committees Union of Health. These facilities provide free health care to the city's residents.
Yet on Thursday, city residents also asked this same Israeli army to impose a curfew on Salam, a village east of Nablus - a feud between two families from the village led to the killing of one person followed by a series of violent reprisals (including the burning of 16 homes). The murder suspect's entire family slipped out of the village. In a scene not witnessed in the territories over the past 30 months, the IDF opened up one of its roadblocks so that Palestinian vehicles could travel from Nablus to Salam so that mediators might try to calm down the two feuding families. Obliging the request of local residents, the IDF transfered the murder suspect from a would-be hiding place to a detention center in Nablus. However dramatic, this village vignette was nothing compared to the tumult in the city of Nablus itself.
On Monday August 18, Shua'ib Shakshir, a worker in a furniture factor owned by "B" - who comes from one of Nablus' wealthiest families - was murdered. The target in the killing was "B," not Shakshir. According to one report, masked men broke into the factory and opened fire before security men could respond, killing Shakshir. A day earlier, masked men shot a friend of "B"'s in the legs - this man, "Y," also comes from one of Nablus' well-to-do families. The two prominent families have strong ties with Palestinian Authority power brokers. A flyer circulated by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades declared that the shooting attacks came as a response to the apparent rape of a young woman in Jenin. Local residents believe that the shootings are a result of various power struggles between rival families.
The following day, masked men killed a guard at a cell phone store managed by "Y." The victim, Ziyad Abu Hamdan, lived in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus (some city residents claim that Abu Hamdan took part in a shooting spree in Nablus seven months ago, and killed one person). Following the murder, armed groups started to attack one another in the city, cars and houses burned, the brother of Nablus' governor was kidnapped for several hours, and a restaurant owned by the kidnap victim was destroyed. About 10 people were wounded by the street shootings. Armed, masked men, some of them teenagers, erected "checkpoints" in the city. Ostensibly as part of the man-hunt for Abu Hamdan's murderer, they demanded that pedestrians display their identity cards.
There is no dearth of political-sociological explanations that account for such "Lebanonization" of Nablus. The explanations include grinding poverty, unemployment, pressures that have mounted under the ongoing closure, class and social differences separating persons from city, village and refugee camps, and the paralysis of the PA police force during the past two years. Whatever the precise mix of such explanations, the bottom line is that most Nablus residents live in fear and are held captive by various armed groups. Palestinian Authority official representatives (from local-urban and national levels) are helpless to do anything to help the residents. In recent months, business proprietors and white-collar professionals have left Nablus and moved to Ramallah. Newspapers are too cowed and frightened to report about Nablus' plight.
While the internal family feuds preceded the outbreak of the current, blood-soaked dispute between Israel and the PA, the in-fighting in Nablus has been exacerbated in the atmosphere of death and destruction that has thickened during the IDF's incursions.
A number of questions envelope the chaos in Nablus: Is anybody orchestrating the activity of the armed groups? Who are the masked killers? How many people belong to these violent groups? All such questions ought to be addressed in a police inquiry. Nablus residents are sick and tired of the threadbare excuse saying that PA security men cannot do anything in a conquered city. Residents believe that these rival groups are tied to power struggles within Fatah and the PA establishment and to struggles between residents of refugee camps and the city. In other words, the issue is not simply crime: patterns of behavior associated with Fatah, the organization which purports to lead the Palestinian national struggle against Israel's conquest, have worsened in a city that is now perched on the edge of chaos.
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