A tipping balance of power


Mousa had a problem. His used computer was sold months ago, but he still hadn’t received any money for it.The agent kept stalling and it was time for him to pay up.

But Mousa – not his real name – did not solve his problem by going to the Nablus police. Instead, he and his friends took the man in his thirties to a nearby hilltop and frightened him enough that the man’s parents promised to pay. Mousa insists they did not beat him up.

Why didn’t he go to the police? “Because the police would laugh at us,” says Mousa, 33. “They know we know better than them what to do.”

The agent, however, did report to the authorities, complaining that Mousa and his friends had hurt him. The next day, the police came to Mousa’s shop and tried to arrest him. They could not.

“We are the people who give the police their power,” says Mousa. He is speaking about the activist core of Fateh, the following that gives Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s faction strength on the ground and the support to fight Israel. “When that guy saw that the police couldn’t arrest us, he ran away and we went looking for him.”

Now the computer agent has appealed to the governor for help. It is a contest of strength as to who will win out.

A shifting balance Before the Aqsa Intifada, Mousa used to say he had nothing to do with politics. He still says the same thing today- a minute before he goes out the door to see “the guys” and get news about Israeli shelling heard nearby. Now his affiliation with Fateh is no longer a source of uneasy loyalty or a despairing pride. Instead, it appears to give him power.

That power has been the natural result of renewed political activism on the part of Fateh members, say local leaders. Now that the political mainstream is once again engaged in rejectionist policies and uprising against Israel, the “authorities,” i.e., the Palestinian Authority, have lost legitimacy. Guns once used only in criminal activity have now joined with guns used for maintaining Palestinian security. The union has altered the balance on the Palestinian street.

Perhaps the most recent indication of what this delicate shift means occurred last week in Nablus when two children, Firas Al Agbar, 13, and Khair Al Din Masri, 17, were killed in armed clashes. Residents say that infamous collaborator-hunter Ahmed Tabook, a member of the tanzeem, followed a police officer who had once jailed him, back to the man’s home in Balata Refugee Camp. There he opened fire and injured four camp residents.Later, the camp residents came looking for Tabook in the center of Nablus, where there was an exchange of fire.An investigation is ongoing, but no one seems to know whose bullets killed the two children.

Last week’s incident provoked community leaders to call for calm and to denounce lawlessness that might play into Israeli hands. “All our citizens should realize that Israel is trying to transfer the battle to Palestinian society so it can defeat our steadfastness,” West Bank intelligence head Tawfiq Tirawi told Voice of Palestine radio. “We will not permit anyone to play with the security of Palestinian society; everybody should comply with Palestinian laws.”

This is not the first time that armed fighting has broken out in the city streets. In September 1999, Bashar Abu Salhieh was shot in his butcher shop in Nablus city after another dispute between camp and city residents. Then, reported the New York Times, the Palestinian Authority arrested several Fateh members in the Palestinian security branches after days of unrest.

Tabook has a reputation as a troublemaker in Nablus, but for some he is legendary. He was jailed in the Nablus central prison in 1996, along with former Fateh Hawk Mahmoud Jamayel. The 26-year-old Jamayel did not leave the prison alive, his lifeless body showing signs of torture by Palestinian security. Then demonstrators threw rocks outside the Nablus municipality in protest.

But today, the balance has shifted. In the Aqsa Intifada, the forces empowering and emboldening Palestinians fighting the Israeli occupation are the same forces weakening those meant to enforce the law.

“Any Intifada comes at the price of the authorities,” says Issam Abu Bakr, seated at the head of a long wooden table in the bare offices of the Nablus tanzeem. “In the first Intifada, the Israeli authorities became zero,” he says,using an Arabic expression to show impotency.

“Now, people don’t want interference. If the [Palestinian]Authority comes in and tries to enforce the law, they find that this is hard to do.”

Abu Bakr is the head of Fateh in Nablus and the man in charge of keeping in line the different forces at work in his activist base. When one asks why he looks so weary, he says he finds his job exhausting.

“There is so much pressure,” he explains. “Before the Intifada, we weren’t thinking about carrying guns against the Israelis.” The difficult task of organizing several hundred returned political activists has fallen to him, at the same time that he himself is a target for Israeli liquidation.

“Many of them were in the Palestinian Authority,” he explains. “When the Intifada began, they all wanted to return to Fateh. This made a mess.” He says that Nablus is home to some 33,000 Fateh members, but only about 1,000 are actively involved.

In one example of how internal tension has been complicated by political changes, Abu Bakr says that there was a point in the Intifada when Fateh activists from Nablus began carrying out operations along with those from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He says “this was not a Fateh decision” and he did not support or oppose it, but that the practical results were that the Palestinian Authority was unable to stop the opposition activists from being armed at the same time that it let its own armed activists go free. The fact that the factions were now “comrades in arms” had major political implications, and tipped the balance towards any and all armed groups operating on the Palestinian street.

Abu Bakr seems a modest and straightforward man. He is concerned about the new realities and burdened with his responsibilities. “What is asked of us is to organize and it’s a great deal more than what is asked of the other factions,” he says.

As the head of this newly-energized body, Abu Bakr is often asked to intervene on behalf of Fateh members with problems like Mousa’s. He says, however, that he only involves himself in internal Fateh-Fateh disputes or disagreements with two sides he can negotiate between.

“If it is a criminal problem,” he says. “I don’t get involved.” To take him at his word, he leaves those disputes to the police.

An unpopular authority

There was a time – before the Intifada – when Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shakaa seemed quite popular. Nablus residents couldn’t stop praising the planned, ordered streets and the mayor, too, was credited with those achievements. Today, however, he says he is having a bit of trouble maintaining order.

“In daily life, there is chaos, no one can get in and out [of the city]. All that we built over the last seven years has been destroyed in a matter of days,” he laments from a swiveling leather chair. His own son was badly injured early on in the Aqsa Intifada.

The rumblings of discontent are clear outside the cool recesses of this office. Mousa, when talking about the mayor, puts his fingers above his head to make the sign of devilish horns. Others say that in these difficult economic times, the mayor’s habit of aiding his friends has made him a target for public anger.

Tuesdays at the mayor’s office are reserved for listening to the grievances of those who come to his office. On this Tuesday, however, the mayor will discuss another move certain to make him even more unpopular. The municipality is deciding whether to cut electricity in the city for several hours a day, he says. No longer does the city have the money to pay.

At the same time that the city is failing to provide Nablus residents with basic services Shakaa is also being called on to mediate between the city’s disputing sectors.

Of last week’s violence, he says, “I was not here, but we do have a problem. There is no law and order and when daily life shatters, it becomes a mess.”

“First, we have to identify the problem,” he says, when asked what the authorities can do. He says the authorities cannot act hastily. “The police and the security have to work according to the law.”

The question is – can the authorities crack down on the same people who have become the heroes of the uprising against Israel? Does the bureaucracy remain strong enough to implement the law?

Abu Bakr says that tension between the Authority and Fateh has been high over the last month in Nablus. He differentiates between the two, despite that many Palestinian Authority leaders are Fateh members, in a way that marks the now-stark differences between the grassroots and the Palestinian Authority-bred “aristocracy.”

Abu Bakr believes that the recent violence on Nablus’ streets has only one solution. He says the Palestinian Authority must grab the reigns, even if that means jailing the Intifada’s heroes. “The Authority…” says Abu Bakr. “It has to put them in prison.”

On July 20, Palestinian security, at the directorate of the municipality, finally arrested several of those involved in the dispute, including Tabook.

“The investigation has started,” reports a cousin of the slain Agbar boy, “but no one knows if anything will help.” He invests his hopes for justice in the mayor, saying that only he has the power to follow through.

“The masses are hungry,” says Abu Bakr. “If they don’t have a solution, there will be problems.”

Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.