When Lawlessness Gets the Upper Hand

Palestinian passersby found themselves in the midst of exchanges of gunfire between armed men wearing civilian clothes. 'Jews,' said 5-year-old T. to his mother. 'No, they're ours, safeguarding our security,' she replied with cynicism beyond his ken.

At long last A. managed to bring his nephews from Jenin to Ramallah for one weekend. He had hoped to restore to them, if only for two days, the taste of their childhood that was buried under the Israeli bulldozers, tanks and missiles. On Friday he took them to the play center in Ramallah. They had not yet begun to enjoy themselves when an argument erupted between a mother and the owner of the place. She called in a relative, a member of one of the security organizations. He came and contributed his part to the argument - shots fired into the air from his pistol, in the closed space full of children.

The children and the parents huddled in alarm and did not calm down until armed police showed up. Instead of stopping the shooting, they too opened fire.

On that same street, about a kilometer northward, passersby found themselves in the midst of exchanges of gunfire between armed men wearing civilian clothes. "Jews," said 5-year-old T. to his mother as they hid behind the shelves of the grocery store. "No, they're ours, safeguarding our security," she replied with cynicism beyond his ken.

In the nearby square, in the middle of the night, a gun battle developed between police and members of the Preventive Security Force, in the wake of a trifling disagreement. Girls have become afraid to walk in Manara Square and the center of town: There has been a resurgence of the phenomenon of young punks who grope them or, in the best case, make sexist remarks. When the punks are armed, or their friends are, there is no knowing how they will react to a girl's refusal or to an attempt by a boyfriend or brother to fend them off.

In Jenin, armed men spirited a defendant, their friend, out of the courtroom during a trial. Others abducted an attorney from Nablus in broad daylight, as he was sitting in a restaurant in Ramallah, held him for about two hours in a small cow barn and informed him that he was a collaborator. They did not like his involvement in a certain lawsuit. And this is just a partial list, which omits the Gaza Strip.

All of the armed men are connected in one way or another to Fatah, the ruling political movement. They compete with one another as to who has the biggest weapon, break into Palestinian Authority offices, stop the work there and demand salaries and jobs or warn that criminal proceedings must not be initiated against them for acts of killing and wounding or taking protection money.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa has declared that as long the occupation continues there will be no discussion of disarming the organizations. In so doing, he is kowtowing to those who are nurturing the myth of the armed struggle, which has been sanctified as an end rather than perceived as a means. The debate will continue for a long time about what led to the disengagement: the armed struggle in Gaza, or a calculation in statesmanship by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that has improved Israel's stock in the world and at the same time will enable the theft of extensive additional territories in the West Bank, the completion of its isolation from Gaza and the postponement of a permanent status solution based on international decisions.

But the fact is that the Palestinians did not embark on a successful guerrilla struggle in the occupied territories. Trapped in the myth of the "armed struggle" and aware of their military weakness, they turned to the suicide attacks. They have indeed demonstrated amazing resilience under the attacks of one of the most powerful armies in the world.

A major problem of the popular uprising of September 2000 is that it was never formulated into a unified and coordinated strategy for liberation from the yoke of the alien, Israeli rule. Is Al-Kidwa hinting that the government, of which he is a member, is intending to develop a liberation strategy that will make use of arms? Clearly not. Had there been any intention, or ability, to do this he would not have declared it.

He is, however, sweeping a number of facts under the carpet: Among other things, it is the difficulty of disarming those who are connected to Fatah and its senior people that is making it hard for the Palestinian Authority to act to confiscate weapons from the opposition organizations. The Palestinian public and the opposition organizations will not condone energetic action by the Palestinian police only against the armed men of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, without there also being action taken against the armed men of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, who every day are joined by new "wanted men" and "fighters," backed by one official or another in Fatah.

Presumably, Al-Kidwa also knows the extent to which the public is afraid of a worsening of the phenomena described above, the perpetrators of which generally identify themselves as Fatah members. Fact: The Palestinian bar association, which has declared a strike, and the network of nongovernmental organizations are planning a series of protest steps.

And presumably Al-Kidwa also knows that confiscating arms from Fatah members is a necessary first condition for restoring public security, though not the only one as the security apparatus personnel, who possess licensed weapons, hasten to use them without any need and without taking nearby civilians and their occupation-related traumas into account. They too must undergo a course of education and training to understand that their role is not to imitate Israel Defense Forces soldiers in manifestations of hostility and indifference toward civilians.