Nablus gunmen 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's efforts to impose law and order in the West Bank suffered a setback Monday when gunmen belonging to his Fatah faction opened fire at Palestinian policemen in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad during a meeting in Jerusalem on Monday night that if the deployment of additional Palestinian security forces in Nablus succeeded in establishing order, the IDF would permit similar deployment in another West Bank city.
Five people were wounded in the armed clashes between the two parties in Nablus, prompting the PA leadership in Ramallah to dispatch additional reinforcements to the city.
The confrontation is an indication of the huge challenges facing Abbas and his security forces in asserting their authority in the West Bank after losing the Gaza Strip to Hamas.
However, all indications on Monday were that Abbas was not interested in an escalation because of his desire to avoid internecine fighting ahead of the US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
Besides, there is no guarantee that his security forces would agree to participate in a crackdown on Fatah militiamen.
Several Fatah-affiliated gangs in the city have vowed not to surrender their weapons to the Palestinian security forces under the pretext that they were still being targeted by the IDF.
The Fatah gangsters, according to local residents, have been behind a spate of crime that has hit Nablus over the past few years. "They're not fighting Israel as much as they are terrorizing the residents of Nablus," said a prominent businessman. "They are the de facto police."
Over the weekend, some 300 policemen were deployed in Nablus as part of a US-backed security plan to boost Abbas's standing in the West Bank ahead of the planned peace conference.
But residents said that other than patrolling the streets and occupying rooftops, the policemen have taken no measures against dozens of gunmen who have long been imposing a reign of terror and intimidation in the largest West Bank city.
Under the terms of the security plan, Palestinian policemen have been permitted to appear on the streets only until midnight, when the IDF becomes responsible for security. PA security officers in Nablus complained Monday that this arrangement made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to carry out their duties.
"People here don't take us seriously because we are not allowed to operate after midnight," one officer told The Jerusalem Post.
But the officer also told the Post that he and his men had not received clear instructions to crack down on the gunmen, especially those belonging to Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades. "No one told us that our mission was to disarm or arrest members of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades," he said.
Gen. Diab al-Ali, the PA security commander of the Nablus area, admitted that Monday's clashes were not the result of a decision to crack down on unruly members of the Aksa Brigades. He said the armed clashes began after policemen "mistakenly" detained the brother of a Fatah gunman from Balata.
"The gunman, who is wanted by the Palestinian Authority, fled to Balata," he said. "We released the brother and apologized to him because he had been detained by mistake."
According to Ali, when a police force tried to enter Balata to search for the gunman, dozens of gunmen and residents pelted them with stones and forced them to flee, leaving behind a police vehicle that was seized by members of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades.
Balata, like most of the Palestinian refugee camps, has always been off-limits to PA security forces.
In the West Bank, the camps are exclusively controlled by Fatah gunmen who function as policemen, judges and executioners.
Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, has always been considered a hard nut to crack. Several attempts by former PA chairman Yasser Arafat to deploy policemen inside the camp were thwarted by Fatah gunmen, who are esteemed by many camp residents as heroes.
As such, Abbas can't afford a major confrontation with gunmen from his own faction, especially not when many of them are being pursued by Israel. A crackdown on the Aksa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank on the eve of the Annapolis conference will only undermine Abbas's power and depict him as a pawn in the hands of Israel and the US.
That's why Abbas's instructions to his security commanders in Nablus were to do their utmost to avoid a confrontation with the gunmen inside the refugee camp and to try to resolve the crisis peacefully.
In fact, this has been the undeclared policy of both Arafat and Abbas since the establishment of the PA.