fatah gunman 298ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Despite Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's decision to ban militiamen from patrolling the streets of the West Bank, scores of Fatah gunmen on Saturday forced teachers in Nablus to call off high school matriculation exams (tawjihi).
The gunmen, who claim they are wanted by Israel, were protesting Abbas's refusal to allow them to sit for the exams in secret halls for "security reasons." And in yet another challenge to Abbas's authority, Fatah gunmen in the West Bank strongly condemned PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad for his criticism of the various militias and his call for disarming them.
Fayad said over the weekend that his government was determined to confiscate the weapons of all militias and gangs in the West Bank, adding that the Palestinians won't be able to establish a state under the current state of anarchy.
Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, rejected Fayad's statements, saying its members would not hand over their weapons. "Our weapons are legitimate because they are being used against the Israeli occupiers," said Muhammad Shehadeh, a spokesman for the group. "We reject Fayad's attempt to depict us as a militia because we are a legitimate force. We call on President Abbas to stop him and others from attacking us." Tensions between Abbas and the Fatah gunmen have been mounting ever since the PA chairman decided two weeks ago to ban all militias from operating in public in the West Bank.
Abbas also decided to incorporate the Aksa Martyrs Brigades into the PA security forces, a move that would turn the gunmen into official security officers entitled to full salaries.
Fatah officials revealed that hundreds of Fatah gunmen in the West Bank were refusing to hand over their weapons to the PA unless they received high salaries and ranks, as well as assurances that Israel would stop targeting them.
"The problem is that all of them want to be colonels and generals although many never finished high school," said one official. "I don't see how we can solve this problem other than through dialogue. We are not interested in a confrontation with these men."
In another blow to Abbas, a newly-appointed Fatah spokesman in the Gaza Strip resigned over the weekend after receiving threats from the Aksa Martyrs Brigades. Hazem Abu Shanab, a top Fatah operative in Gaza, was appointed less than two weeks ago as the faction's official spokesman there. His decision to quit came after the Aksa Martyrs Brigades accused him of being closely associated with former Fatah security commander Muhammad Dahlan.
Abbas decided last week that all students must report to public exam halls throughout the West Bank, drawing sharp criticism from hundreds of gunmen belonging to the Aksa Martyrs Brigades.
Until now, all Fatah gunmen were granted special treatment by the PA Ministry of Education when sitting for the tawjihi. In addition to allocating secret halls for them, the ministry also permitted the gunmen to enter the halls with their weapons - a move that was seen as a direct threat to the lives of the teachers.
In the context of his efforts to end lawlessness and anarchy in the West Bank, Abbas last week instructed PA Education Minister Lamis Alami to cancel the practice of allocating special halls to the fugitives.
Enraged by the decision, some 100 Fatah gunmen went on a rampage in a number of schools in Nablus, forcing the ministry to call off the exams. Firing warning shots into the air, the gunmen ordered hundreds of students to leave four halls where the exams were being held.
One of the gunmen read a statement through a megaphone in which he announced that his group had decided to close the halls until further notice because of Abbas's decision.
"This decision was taken by the Aksa Martyrs Brigades and all armed factions in Nablus," the masked gunman said. "We will not allow the exams to be held until President Abbas accepts our demand to have our own halls. We can't go to public halls together with hundreds of students because we are wanted by the Israelis."
Sahar Akoubeh, a senior official in the PA Ministry of Education, confirmed that the gunmen had closed down the exam halls. She pointed out that some 250 students from the Nablus area were registered as gunmen who are wanted by Israel and that they were demanding special treatment under the pretext that their lives were at stake.
One of the students who was forced to leave in the middle of the exam told The Jerusalem Post that PA policemen at the scene refused to interfere to stop the gunmen from closing the halls. "The policemen told us that they have orders not to anger the Fatah gunmen," he said. "What kind of a government is this? If they can't impose order, they must go."