Palestinians fear anarchy, lawlessness as Fatah gunmen threaten banks

Residents accuse PA, security forces of failing to take action • Shtayyeh: Israel waging ‘campaign of intimidation’

FATAH GUNMEN hold rifles during a demonstration in the West Bank. (photo credit: REUTERS)
FATAH GUNMEN hold rifles during a demonstration in the West Bank.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In scenes reminiscent of the Second Intifada, masked gunmen took to the streets of some Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the past few days to protest a decision by a number of banks to close the accounts of Palestinian security prisoners held in Israeli prisons.
The bank’s decision came in response to new IDF legislation, which went into effect on May 9, and which declares that “any person who conducts any transaction with assets, including money, in order to facilitate, further, fund or reward a person for carrying out terror-related offenses is himself committing an offense punishable with 10 years in prison and a substantial fine.”
The closure of the prisoners’ accounts has sparked a wave of protests by many Palestinians, including political activists, families of the prisoners and various Palestinian factions from across the political spectrum.
In the areas of Jenin and Nablus, masked gunmen took to the streets to join the protests, firing shots into the air and threatening bank managers to backtrack on their decision. A similar incident was reported in the al-Amari refugee camp, near Ramallah, on Sunday night.
Palestinian sources said the gunmen belonged to al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah ruling faction, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The group has been designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union, Canada and the US.
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades was responsible for several suicide bombings and many other terrorist attacks against Israel during the Second Intifada. In 2005, Fatah announced that the group would be dissolved and its members incorporated into the PA security forces. The group, however, has since remained active, particularly in the areas of Nablus and Jenin.
In the town of Kabatiya, near Jenin, several masked gunmen carrying M-16 rifles arrived at the entrance to the branch of Bank of Jordan. After firing several warning shots in the air, one of the gunmen read from a written statement.
Addressing the bank managers, the Fatah gunman said: “We will strike with an iron fist, and everyone should know that our rifles will reach all those who comply with the [Israeli] move. We have run out of patience and we have decided to act against all those who operate on instructions from their masters. It’s disgraceful to say that we have a state that can’t take a decision to support our prisoners and martyrs.”
During the first and second Palestinian uprisings, Kabatiya was considered a stronghold of various Fatah armed groups, including the Black Panther, whose members mostly specialized in killing Palestinians suspected of “collaboration” with Israel.
In Balata refugee camp, another traditional Fatah stronghold, gunmen belonging to al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades held a similar protest against the banks’ decision to close the prisoners’ accounts. A masked spokesman read out the same statement as the one in Kabatiya as his friends unleashed a volley of automatic gunfire from their M-16s.
IN A separate incident, a bank branch in Jericho was attacked with a Molotov cocktail.
On Monday, the PLO’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine organized a protest outside the headquarters of the Bank of Palestine in Gaza City, where its officials accused the banks of “acquiescence with the policies of the occupation and ‘Deal of the Century,’ [US President Donald Trump’s plan for Mideast peace].”
PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and the Association of Banks in Palestine have condemned the attacks on the banks and the threats made by the masked gunmen.
Earlier, Shtayyeh announced that the banks would freeze their decision until a special committee presents its recommendations on ways of solving the crisis.
On Monday, Shtayyeh said the salaries of the prisoners are a “sacred matter,” adding that the Palestinians won’t be intimidated by Israel’s measures. Speaking during the weekly meeting of the PA cabinet in Ramallah, Shtayyeh also accused Israel of waging a “campaign of intimidation” against the banks in the West Bank.
Several Palestinians, however, accused the PA and its security forces of failing to take action against those behind the attacks and threats. Some Palestinians attributed the PA’s idleness to the fact that those behind the threats were members of Fatah, and not another group such as Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
“The Fatah gunmen are affiliated with the Palestinian Authority, and some of them even work as officers in its security forces,” said Ibrahim al-Masri, a merchant from Nablus. “These gunmen receive their salaries from the Palestinian Authority and everyone knows their identities.”
Describing the gunmen as the PA’s “spoiled kids,” Masri said the Palestinian security forces would have reacted in a different way had the militiamen belonged to Hamas or PIJ.
Ehab Abu al-Rub, a resident of Jenin, said the reappearance in public of the heavily armed gunmen shows that the Palestinian security forces are not the only ones operating in the West Bank.
“Some people believe that the Fatah gunmen have more authorities than the official security forces,” he remarked. “The presence of the gunmen on the streets is an indication of the weakness of the Palestinian security services.”
Abu al-Rub and other Palestinians told The Jerusalem Post that the return of the Fatah gunmen to the streets could pave the way for a return to scenes of anarchy and lawlessness prevalent during the two uprisings.
“What we saw in the past few days is very disturbing,” said a Palestinian academic from Ramallah who asked not to be named. “When you see these gunmen on the streets, you are reminded of how close we are to a state of anarchy, chaos and lawlessness. Videos featuring armed men threatening bank managers are very harmful to the Palestinians.”
Hassan Asfour, a former PA minister who currently serves as editor of AMAD, a Palestinian electronic media political site, also expressed outrage over the threats made by the Fatah gunmen against the banks.
In an article published on Monday, Asfour said scenes of “armed thugs on the streets of West Bank cities, especially Ramallah, the administrative capital [of] President Abbas, can’t be considered a sign of an expression of anger in defense of the right of prisoners, but rather a threatening message against banks operating in Palestine.”
Asfour warned that the “disgraceful” reappearance of the Fatah gunmen would pave the way for “chaos and social terrorism.”