The Palestinian Authority is rapidly losing control of the northern West Bank, where hundreds of gunmen belonging to the ruling Fatah faction and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have increased their presence and activities in recent months.
The gunmen from the armed wings of Fatah and PIJ, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Al-Quds Brigades have stepped up their attacks on settlers and IDF soldiers and installations.
Most of the gunmen are based in refugee camps and villages in and around the cities of Nablus and Jenin.
In Nablus, scores of Fatah and PIJ gunmen are also based inside the Old City, also known as Al-Qasaba.
What does it all mean though?
The presence of the gunmen on the streets in the Nablus and Jenin areas underscores the weakness of the PA, whose leaders are aware that there’s little they can do to disarm the armed groups and individuals.
The Palestinian public, meanwhile, continues to view the gunmen as “heroes” who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause. They are regarded as the defenders of the people, while the PA leaders and security forces are denounced as corrupt “traitors” and “collaborators” with Israel.
It is this perception that is stopping the PA from ordering its security forces to rein them in?
Why won't the PA fight?
The PA is already under attack by many Palestinians for refusing to halt security coordination with Israel.
On Sunday, the PA leadership again threatened to stop the security coordination and cancel all signed agreements with the Jewish state. The threat came shortly after the IDF killed two gunmen in the Old City of Nablus. Many Palestinians, nonetheless, did not take the threat seriously, noting that this was not the first time the PA had talked about severing all its ties with Israel. They also noted that previous resolutions by the PLO and Fatah calling for an end to the security coordination and the rescinding of the agreements with Israel were ignored by the Ramallah-based leadership.
THE PA is also facing growing criticism for failing to order its security forces to confront IDF soldiers during their incursions into Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
Many Palestinians, meanwhile, are disturbed by the presence and activities of the gunmen, who they say are replacing the PA security forces as law-enforcers.
What do the Palestinians think?
“There’s a feeling that the Palestinian Authority is no longer in control,” said a Palestinian academic from Ramallah. “There are too many armed men and thugs who are acting as if they are in charge.”
“There’s a feeling that the Palestinian Authority is no longer in control. There are too many armed men and thugs who are acting as if they are in charge.”Palestinian academic from Ramallah
The PA is both afraid and unwilling to deal with the gunmen, he said. “Many of these armed men belong to Fatah, and that’s why they are treated as if they are part of the Palestinian security apparatus,” he pointed out. “[PA] President [Mahmoud] Abbas is afraid that these men will turn against him if he orders a crackdown on them. He also has no reason to go after them as long as they don’t pose a threat to his regime.”
Some Palestinians are concerned about the sight of large numbers of gunmen patrolling their neighborhoods and streets.
In recent weeks, many Palestinians have complained about scenes of anarchy and lawlessness, especially in the Jenin and Nablus areas, where a number of Palestinians were shot and injured in several attacks there.
Earlier this week, unidentified gunmen shot and injured a retired security officer and his son in Nablus. Last Friday, gunmen shot and injured Nasser al-Shaer, a Nablus academic who previously served as deputy prime minister in the PA government.
Last month, clashes erupted at An-Najah University in Nablus between Fatah and Hamas supporters. In addition, at least 23 Palestinians were injured in several shooting incidents in the Nablus and Jenin areas in the past two weeks, according to a PA security source.
Sunday morning’s armed clashes between IDF troops and gunmen in Nablus are yet another indication of how the armed groups of Fatah and PIJ have become the de facto sheriffs of the city. The phenomenon has also spread to large parts of Ramallah, where Fatah-affiliated gunmen and activists seem to have established their own law-enforcement agencies.
Residents of Nablus said that the PA security forces have long been aware of the activities of the gunmen in their city, but have not lifted a finger to stop them. The same applies to the Jenin refugee camp, where they are seen by the residents as not-so-Lone Rangers.