Riots Erupt in Nablus After Palestinian Cops Beat Suspect to Death

Ahmed Halawa was suspected of planning the shooting of two Palestinian officers. Week of violence casts doubts on Palestinian Authority's control of area.

Palestinian security forces patrolling the streets of Nablus on Tuesday.
Abed Omar Qusini / Reuters

Palestinian security forces are suspected of beating to death a Nablus man after arresting him Monday night in the latest in a series of violent clashes between police and residents of the West Bank town. The man, Ahmed Halawa, was suspected of planning a shooting in which two Palestinian policemen were killed on Thursday night.

The arrest and killing of Halawa comes in the wake of a week of shootings and unrest which are seen by many residents as a power struggle between the Palestinian Authority security services and local criminals. Some of those criminals are affiliated with Fatah, the PA’s ruling party, and belong to the party’s armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, but refuse to accept the PA’s authority.

Halawa's death sparked more clashes between demonstrators and police who used riot gear to disperse the crowds on Tuesday and barred Nablus residents from holding a planned protest march.

The upsurge in violence in the town began last Thursday, when a gun battle erupted between criminals and Palestinian policemen in the casbah, resulting in two dead policemen. The next day, police killed two criminals during an attempt to arrest them.

Then, Monday night, police arrested Halawa, described by Palestinian security services spokesman Gen. Adnan Admiri as the police’s most wanted man. He was located due to an intelligence tip, Admiri said, and was suspected of orchestrating the incident that resulted in the killing of the two police. After Halawa was brought to a lock-up in the Nablus area policemen apparently assaulted him, causing serious injuries that led to his death. Admiri said the security services have begun investigating the incident.

Ahmed Halawa.
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Nablus governor Akram Rajoub gave a similar version of events, but added that Halawa had been cursing and insulting the policemen, who then overreacted.

Though Halawa wasn’t a Hamas member, Hamas termed his death a crime and said it constituted additional proof of the PA’s brutality and repression of its opponents. The PA regularly executes its opponents without trial, Hamas charged, adding that PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior officials have threatened in the past that anyone who didn’t accept the PA’s authority would end up dead.

Palestinian human rights groups also criticized Halawa’s killing and demanded an investigation.

At a cabinet meeting yesterday afternoon, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah announced the establishment of an independent inquiry commission into Halawa’s death and promised to publish the results. He also urged all criminals to turn themselves into the PA.

But some Palestinians dismissed the planned commission as an attempt to placate residents. Anger at the PA has been running high throughout the West Bank, especially in Nablus.

A member of the Palestinian security forces takes position behind a wall in the West Bank city of Nablus on August19 during ongoing clashes between the security forces and Palestinian gunmen.
Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

The latest violence in the city has received intense coverage in both the Palestinian media and other Arab media outlets because of its unusually high death toll. But in fact, armed gangs and the PA security services have been at war in Nablus for some time.

Nablus residents said most of the gang members had been active in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades during the second intifada. Afterward, they moved into criminal activity, and have started fighting police for control of the casbah and other sections of the city.

In the last two months there have been gangland shootings in other West Bank towns as well, raising questions about the degree to which the PA security service controls the territory, especially the refugee camps. Abbas recently met with senior security officials to demand that they restore control.

Abbas’ opponents, including some within his own party, accuse him of using the war on crime as a pretext to settle accounts with his rivals, especially with supporters of his chief political rival, Mohammed Dahlan. But some Nablus residents say the armed gangs are merely pretending to be political opponents in order to justify their efforts to intimidate the residents, especially the merchants. The PA, these residents say, is merely trying to restore order.

Halawa’s killing and Hamas’ biting response to it come at a sensitive time for the PA, with local elections scheduled for October. This will constitute the first electoral contest between Fatah and Hamas in about a decade, as Hamas boycotted the last local elections.

The upcoming election has heightened tension and deepened Palestinian fears that further violence could erupt.