"Lawless" city demands action

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One hundred and forty-seven days after a stray bullet killed his wife, Faleh Abu Hijleh, 45, is busy with the work he and 37-year-old Amneh used to share. He sits with his nine-year-old daughter Lubna to help her with her studies, he takes six-year-old Osama to school and before they go to bed, he makes sure they brush their teeth

Amneh Abu Hijleh was killed by an armed Palestinian as she was about to enter a pharmacy to buy cough syrup for her infant daughter. That day, July 17, she had come to Nablus from Ramallah to attend the wedding of her sister-in-law’s son. It was her bad luck that she should have chosen the same day as an attempted kidnapping. “My heart breaks every time I look at my baby Hiba’s face,” says Abu Hijleh.

A little over four months after the killing of Amneh, on the first day of Eid al Fitr on November 25, 51-year-old Ahmad Buraq Shaka’a, the brother of Nablus’ mayor, Ghassan Shakaa’, was murdered in Nablus. He was leaving his sister’s home, who had passed away a year before, and had just finished reciting the Quran in honor of her memory.

According to Palestinian security sources, unknown armed assailants had set up an ambush near the western cemetery and fired three bullets at Buraq. One hit him in the head. He was driving a car that belonged to his brother, Ghassan. The sources suggested that the mayor was the actual target.

The Bitter Reality

The feeling is growing in Nablus that too many innocents –” such as Amneh and Buraq –” have been killed by local armed men who are taking advantage of the “security void” that has resulted from the repeated incursions of Israeli occupation forces into the city and its camps that partly targeted Palestinian Authority facilities and the security services.

Even the governor has not escaped attacks from what he calls the “bad weeds that must be rooted out.” Mahmoud Aloul’s car was set on fire and a restaurant and coffee shop belonging to his brother was burnt to the ground. A third brother was kidnapped from his workplace, though he was returned in less than half an hour after the intervention of President Yasser Arafat. The gangs have accused Aloul of not dealing fairly with lawbreakers, which he denies. All lawbreakers, he says, are punished appropriately.

Nevertheless, lawlessness appears to many widespread and sometimes borders on pure arrogance. In October, a former police chief, Firas Amleh, who, in leaflets signed by Fateh had been accused of corruption, was shot and wounded in both legs. Armed clashes between armed groups occur regularly. Sometimes the people involved proudly identify their factional loyalties, though, when innocent civilians become victims, as in the case of a 12-year-old boy from the village of Awarta, who was shot by a stray bullet during an armed confrontation between two Palestinian groups just before the Eid Al Fitr in November, such claims are quickly denied.

All for nothing

The killing of Amneh was a great shock for the people of Nablus and the Fara’a refugee camp where she was born. Thousands of people walked in her funeral procession, condemning the crime, and thousands again took to the streets months later for the funeral of Buraq.

Buraq’s death came two days after a meeting of the Palestinian national security council headed by President Arafat in which members affirmed that “all those who act outside the law will be held accountable and dealt with severely.”

The killing thus succeeded in showing the large gap between the Palestinian leadership’s policies and what is actually happening on the ground. In an interview with the Palestine Report on December 3, Mayor Shakaa, himself a member of the national security council as well as the PLO executive committee, reported that over 33 Nablus residents have been killed at the hands of Palestinians as a result of “chaos and lawlessness” and because of “the inability of the Palestinian Authority to punish the criminals.”

In early December, official and private institutions in Nablus sent a letter to Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmad Qrei’ calling for the restoration of security and safety for the people and a firm commitment to the preservation of public order, respect for and protection of public and private properties, and action against those who act outside the law. The letter also requested that certain specific demands be met, arrests be carried out and murderers and lawbreakers be tried in a court of law.

Nonetheless, the violent incidents continue. On December 8, the car of PLO executive committee member, Tayseer Khalid, was shot at. Khalid, who is also a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) politburo, was not in the car at the time. It was the first attack on a high-ranking political figure outside of Fateh. “The shooting at my car is no doubt a dangerous matter but it is really an extension of the culture of vigilantism, chaos and hooliganism that has prevailed,” Khalid said in a phone interview.

Public Debate

The shootings and killings in Nablus have sparked a public debate in local institutions and media as well as the Legislative Council. Hardly a day goes by without a local newspaper running announcements by individuals or families who have lost loved ones or come under attack. The announcements inevitably call on Arafat to “take measures against the perpetrators of these attacks, against those who take the law into their own hands and restore the rule of law and protect the safety of the citizens.”

Nablus’ residents largely put the responsibility for implementing the law and restoring public order on the Palestinian Authority, which, however, doesn’t yet seem capable of doing so. What most fear is that the phenomenon will spread and more and more people will be forced to take the law into their own hands.

In an Al Ayyam article on November 29, the author Hani Masri observed that the most destructive element to the people of Nablus is not the occupation or the siege, “for this is their fate.” What truly affects them, he wrote, “is the chaos, the lawlessness, the lack of security and people taking the law into their own hands. This lack of security has reached a point never reached before.”

Masri goes on to argue that “the Authority has the first and largest responsibility because it has the authority and capability to do something.” Nablus, he continued, is a victim of the Palestinian political system, “which behaves as if chaos is one of its sources of strength.”

On December 2, the debate reached the Legislative Council, with PLC member Dalal Salameh demanding an explanation from interior minister Hakam Balawi for the rise in the murder rate, a result, she said, of the spread of arms not used to resist the occupation. She also mentioned the people’s discontent over attacks on institutions and the growing industry in stolen cars, some of which are now ending up as taxis.

“The chaotic situation has led to the creation of armed gangs whose actions are not national activities. They control, conspire and kill, [and their actions] have led to the deaths of a number of innocent people.”

In response, Balawi attributed the lack of security and chaos to the absence of the rule of law as a result of the absence of the Palestinian Authority.

At a meeting of Nablus NGOs, charitable institutions, labor institutions and others on November 27, one Fateh activist privately argued that “our problem stems from there not being one security reference. Having multiple security services is a mistake that only has negative impacts. Political pluralism is a healthy phenomenon. It is positive and it is what is needed. Ninety percent of those who carry out the chaos receive salaries from the Authority.”

Self-Protection

Far from the public debate, Abu Hijleh still mourns his wife. “I have lost a major and precious part of me, my wife and my love.” Abu Hijleh’s sister-in-law helps take care of the baby while he is in charge of the two older ones. “I only have my job and them. I have no other relationships.”

The prime suspect in the shooting is now in jail “as far as I know,” he says. “But his two partners [the three were reportedly attempting to kidnap a member of a rival gang in the pharmacy at the time of the shooting] are still free.”

The family of the person accused of the killing, says Abu Hijleh, approached him to settle the dispute tribally. “My response was that the law must take its due course because if we allow transgressions to be handled with social niceties and tribal settlements, the cause of the transgression, the lack of rule of law, will remain.”

Abu Hijleh still has faith that the people can make a difference, and advocates that people form popular committees responsible for the personal protection of innocent people. “In Rafidia, where my wife was killed, the people are enthusiastic about forming a committee for the protection of innocent people from vigilantes.” The committees, he stresses, should not be armed.

“We all know of people who have fought against occupation. We never heard of resistance fighters showing off their weapons and waving them in the air like a celebration. This is something that must stop. In Britain, policemen do not carry weapons, only a nightclub and a whistle. Then why do we see weapons everywhere, when it is appropriate and when it is not? Weapons are for the resistance against the occupation and should only be used in the appropriate places.”

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