W. Bank gunmen move from petty crime to organized extortion

Blackmail is latest tactic of some Palestinian armed groups, often having ties to Fatah's Al Aksa Martyrs' Brigades.

al-aksa gunman 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
al-aksa gunman 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
One Palestinian merchant sold his shops and is preparing to emigrate after gunmen tried to extort 50,000 shekels ($12,500) from him. Another entrepreneur ended up in the hospital with severe beating injuries after refusing to pay up. Blackmail of wealthy business people is the latest tactic of some Palestinian armed groups, who have increasingly turned to crime to fund their armed groups, terrorizing entire cities as intimidated police stand by. The extortionists often have ties to the Al Aksa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of moderate Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, or even serve in the security forces. Al Aksa was formed in 2000, at the start of the second intifada, and its hundreds of members were involved in shooting attacks against Israel. However, with the uprising fading and lawlessness spreading, some of the gunmen have resorted to crime. They have progressed from petty theft and robberies to more sophisticated blackmail. In contrast, Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives are generally not involved in criminal activity, both because of religious constraints and because of generous funding by their groups. Blackmail is widespread in the West Bank city of Nablus, an Al Aksa stronghold, said human rights researcher Ziad Othman. "Most of the business people are complaining that they are being blackmailed," Othman said. "For example, a guy would come to a factory or company in Nablus, meet the manager and ask him for money to buy a rifle." One Nablus merchant, who would only give a first name, Omar, for fear of retribution, said three men carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles knocked on the door of his house recently, bundled him into a stolen BMW and forced him to sign a note saying he owed them 50,000 shekels. He said the extortionists had done their research, targeting him after learning he had just completed a profitable deal. Omar said his complaint to the authorities, including the district governor and the police chief, proved fruitless, and he's decided to leave the West Bank for good. He declined to say where he was heading. "I've started cashing in my assets," he said. "This is no place for me to live and work." Bassem Khoury, the head of the Palestinian Federation of Industries, said extortion has become commonplace. A member of the federation was ordered by gunmen to pay them $30,000 (€22,000), Khoury said. The Nablus district governor, Kamal Alsheikh, said most victims are afraid to come forward, making it difficult for authorities to crack down. A Nablus businessman who refused to pay 10,000 Jordanian dinars ($14,000 or €10,350) to blackmailers was beaten and ended up in the hospital. "I visited him in the hospital and begged him to say who was behind it, but he refused," Alsheikh said. Rising unemployment is pushing more and more young people into the ranks of armed gangs. Fatah lawmaker Ahmed Shraim said that if the security forces don't stop the extortionists, "the Palestinian economy will collapse because all businessmen will leave." At least 30,000 Palestinians applied for immigration papers at foreign representative offices in Ramallah in the past year, Khoury said. Canada, Egypt, and Arab Gulf countries are popular destinations. Zakariya Zubeidi, a leading Al Aksa gunman in the West Bank town of Jenin, acknowledged that some Fatah fighters are involved in crime. However, he tried to shift blame, saying members of the security forces were behind much of the extortion. Some Al Aksa groups have given themselves new names to distinguish themselves from the criminal gangs. Local leader Bassem Abu Sariyeh calls his group of three dozen gunmen in Nablus's old city the "Knights of the Night" to set it apart. Abu Sariyeh said he fears for the future of Al Aksa "because many ... cause shame to the name of the brigades."