My fourteen-year old son, Bishara, and his cousin ran into trouble this week. They were loitering in Bethlehem’s manger square during the few hours of the lifting of the curfew when they were confronted by much older teens who wanted to shake them down for money. The incident ended peacefully, but the fact that it took place in the center of Bethlehem in the middle of the day is telling of a much bigger problem that is taking place in the Palestinian territories.
With the heavy Israeli onslaught on the Palestinian Authority and its various security forces, coupled with the reoccupation of all major West Bank cities, Palestine is in danger of witnessing a state of unprecedented lawlessness.
The presence of tanks and armored Israeli carriers in the centers of Palestinian towns has naturally resulted in the disappearance of the uniformed Palestinian police who have been targeted by the invading Israeli soldiers. But these new/old Israeli occupiers are not taking any direct involvement in day-to-day activities in Palestine. Bunkered in their fortified tanks, Israeli soldiers don’t make any effort to interfere with the activities of Palestinians. Thus the stage is left ripe for any individual or group of individuals to fill this new power vacuum.
My description of the situation should not in anyway be interpreted as a call for Israeli interference, but simply to state the fact that the continuation of this strange security situation is endangering to the internal social stability of Palestinian life.
The deteriorating economic situation as a result of the 23-month old siege and the four month old incursion/curfews also plays into the hands of thugs who look for well to do persons to go after. If those who fall prey to these gangs are unable to defend themselves, it doesn’t take long for these cases to be repeated without these individuals having any viable recourse.
Palestinian courts, who are normally expected to protect the weak, have become completely paralyzed because of the absence of any executive enforcement body.
District governors are also feeling the results of this power vacuum as their roles and powers diminish on a daily basis. These governors, who are supposed to represent the president in their district and command local security forces have become as weak as their president whose own political survival is in doubt.
In the absence of any organized executive powers, the Palestinian population is slowly reverting to tribal systems for solving problems. Communities are huddling together and staying in close touch with each other so as to act as a quick reaction force once any member of their collective is endangered. Naturally such tribal solutions clearly play into the hands of the more abundant family/social even religious groupings.
Political forces and factions play their role in this new tribalism with the Fatah faction/tribe the more powerful because it is the only one that is not on the run from the Israelis and the remnants of the Palestinian Authority and police.
So far most of the cases of lawlessness tend to be economic-based there are few cases of homicidal criminality. Some private land grab cases are taking place as well as building encroachment and forced evictions. Banks have for some time stopped providing any sort of credit to their clients because of their fear that they will not be able to enforce any asset reclamation if the debts are not paid.
Despite the presence of petty thugery and some cases of property grabs, the Palestinian population, for the most part has not allowed the situation to turn chaotic. While Palestinian police are not being seen in uniform they are working nevertheless in civilian clothes to solve problems. Local officials in coordination with governors and security officials are seen constantly in trouble spots trying to solve problems amicably using whatever little leverage they still have. But with every passing day their ability to keep a sense of stability becomes more difficult. If the coming weeks don’t witness a breakthrough on the macro political/security level, the feeling among Palestinians is that at the micro level the danger of disorder and chaos is eminent.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University which owns and runs Al Quds Educational Television. In May 2001, Mr. Kuttab received the International Press Institute’s award as one of fifty press freedom heroes in the last fifty years.