Future of PA tested in West Bank’s lawless alleys

A member of the Palestinian security forces patrols the West Bank city of Nablus on 16 November.

Nedal Eshtayah APA images

It was billed as a conference to unite Fatah. And Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader who was unanimously re-elected as Fatah chairman, can look back with satisfaction at a conference that passed without incident or surprise.

But Fatah’s seventh general conference also papered over some serious cracks in the movement – cracks that have ruptured violently in the lawless alleys of the West Bank’s refugee camps, and that the conference did nothing to address.

Foremost among those is the struggle between supporters of the exiled former Gaza security chief Muhammad Dahlan – who were not invited to the five-day Ramallah parley – and Abbas loyalists.

Gunmen seen as affiliated to Dahlan and loyal to local power-brokers have been locked in an escalating series of running battles with PA security forces. Both sides have seen several casualties, amid accusations of extrajudicial killings and a lethal beating in PA custody.

Nowhere has this violence been more deadly than in Nablus. Long a crucible of political unrest, the northern West Bank city has also been the scene of some dozen fatalities in internecine Palestinian violence this year. The last casualty was a woman killed in crossfire in the Old City in November. And armed fighters, would-be peacemakers and beleaguered refugees all described a city lurching towards civil war.

City of internecine war

Balata is the largest and most febrile West Bank refugee camp. Some 30,000 Palestinians share just 2 square km of land, and unemployment is rife. Its narrow alleyways are plastered with martyr posters commemorating men slain fighting the Israeli occupation.

They still ring regularly with gunfire, but only some of that is directed at Israeli soldiers: here, members of armed groups also regularly engage Palestinian security forces, and criminals shoot at other criminals.

At the time of writing, gunmen blamed for a fatal shooting were hiding out in Balata, while a local youth was recently shot dead there by unknown assailants.

Primary school teacher Hanan, 42, cares for 50 children in the camp. She did not want to give her full name for this article. “They are all exhausted,” she said. “But it’s nothing new here. Most pupils already have psychological problems.”

Heavy-handed violence against Palestinians by an authority perceived as an Israeli puppet regime curdles latent resentment. And Dahlan, himself born in a Gaza refugee camp, is said to buy the support of Balata residents with donations and through charities and retains it in collusion with local Fatah leaders.

“The Israelis are our enemies, it’s natural for them to attack us,” said Mariam, 33, who works as a secretary in the camp’s cultural center and also didn’t want to divulge her last name. “But for the PA to do so? This is the worst thing we face.”

Poisonous “security coordination”

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were formed during the second intifada to fight Israel. Identifying as the armed wing of Fatah, they once reportedly received up to $50,000 monthly in PA funding when Yasser Arafat, the late Fatah leader, was still alive.

Post-intifada, and post-Arafat, the Brigades were slated to be disarmed and incorporated into the PA’s official security forces. Many former leaders of the group now draw PA salaries.

Yet the absorption into PA security forces – which maintain close coordination with the Israeli army – was resisted in some cities, and members of Fatah-affiliated armed groups still dominate Nablus refugee camps. And since Israel’s onslaught on Gaza in 2014, the Brigades have made an open return to armed conflict.

Samer, a 30-year-old Brigades fighter, sat in the front room of a house belonging to Thaer Qandil, a Brigades commander in the Nablus-area al-Askar refugee camp. The night before, Israeli forces had arrested Qandil following a four-hour standoff, and the whitewashed walls of his apartment were pockmarked with bullet holes.

“Ordinary people can’t defend themselves against the Israelis or the PA,” Samer, who did not want his full name used, said. “They have no weapons.” Still, he was happy to show off smartphone slideshows of himself and his friends posing with guns in the very room he was sitting in.

“The Israelis and the PA are together,” said Samer. “They’re one thing.” As an example, he pointed out that the previous night’s raid showed how Israeli soldiers could freely enter areas of purported PA control.

Indeed, under the security coordination arrangement between the PA and Israel, Palestinian forces, including uniformed police, have to stand down when the Israeli military is operating in their areas. Palestinian security forces, meanwhile, have also apprehended hundreds of suspects believed to be planning attacks on Israeli targets.

It is a deeply unpopular policy among Palestinians that fuels discontent with the PA, yet one Abbas has publically defended time and again, even calling it “sacred.”

Tired of violence

Samer has already spent time in Israeli and Palestinian custody. “Let’s say I have had problems with the PA,” he said, cracking a smile. “They beat me when I was under arrest, and they killed my brother.”

He named the dead “brother” as Qassam, a brother in arms rather than by blood: “He was unarmed – it was heartless. And my other brothers are in their prisons.”

But popular sentiment is not entirely with the militants operating outside the PA. The raucous Nablus market has long sheltered such fugitives, and on occasion been a no-go area for government forces. But for some, the recent death of a civilian woman was a red line crossed.

In August, two Palestinian policemen were killed trying to make arrests in Nablus. Two men accused of being members of Fatah-affiliated armed groups were subsequently shot dead, and the man reputedly the commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Nablus, Ahmad Halawa, was beaten to death in police custody.

Thousands attended his funeral, and PA prime minister Rami Hamdallah has promised an independent investigation into his death.

Then, during a subsequent PA operation in the Old City, Hilda Bassam al-Asta was caught by a stray bullet as she cowered indoors during clashes, and the official autopsy, at least, blamed militiamen. Three shooters fled to Balata in a hijacked taxi, and the PA are currently a visible – if nervous – presence in the inner city.

“The militias say they are true Fatah, but they are criminals,” said Hassanain Mubaraka, a street trader who works around the market. “They have no interest in peace.”

Young man wearing checkered scarf around his head and face holds rifle

Fighters in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades rally in support of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Balata refugee camp on 1 March 2016.

Nedal Eshtayah APA images

Spotless bar a flip-flop floating in the swimming pool, the gated compound of former Nablus mayor Ghassan al-Shakaa is a far cry from the dirty alleys of Balata. But in June, Ghassan’s luxurious mansion was also raked with bullets. Despite the attack, the 74-year-old aligns himself as a go-between linking Fatah leaders and dissident factions.

“Fatah don’t know how to talk with people in the camps,” he said. “And people in the camps are not ready to work for anyone.”

But Old City activist and filmmaker Mustafa Azizi believes dissidents have nothing to gain from reconciliation.

“Fatah is ended now,” he said. “If you show you’re strong enough to control Nablus, you can be the next Abbas.”

The PA abandoned Nablus, Azizi added disdainfully. “They abandoned the West Bank. The money, the [nongovernmental organizations], the big companies: everything’s in Ramallah.”

Dahlan in the shadows

It is true the de facto capital of the West Bank is a privileged enclave where Fatah officials and hip youngsters with Jerusalem IDs can sip cocktails and forget about the occupation.

But Ramallah, too, has its refugee camps. In the streets of al-Amari camp, tattered strings of Fatah pennants tangle with fresh, canary-colored replacements. On 22 October, PA security forces shot at demonstrators protesting the arrest of a local Fatah leader, the popular Jihad Tummaleh, who had tried to convene a conference calling for reconciliation between Abbas and Dahlan.

Like Dahlan, Tummaleh was then expelled from Fatah.

In this precarious security environment, the Fatah general conference was touted as a chance to settle factional differences. But Ahmad Abdulrahman, a member of the camp’s popular committee, says the conference itself led to the violent crackdown in al-Amari.

The Sixth General Conference in 2009 meeting saw 2,500 delegates invited, but for 2016 this figure was slashed to 1,400. Unsurprisingly, it is dissenters and Dahlan supporters who were cut.

“If there were 2,500 people attending they would change everything,” said Abdulrahman. “They would change Abbas.”

Though whether they would change him for Dahlan is another matter.

Dahlan, born in Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, was a local leader in the first intifada when he was arrested by Israel. He emerged after Oslo as a key Fatah security leader in Gaza, becoming head of the Preventive Security Services there, before being appointed by the first Palestinian Authority government with a prime minister (Abbas) as minister of state for security.

In that capacity, he was effectively the head of a 20,000-strong security personnel. He established a fearsome reputation for torturing Hamas detainees, even as his calls for anti-corruption reform won support among Palestinians in Gaza and preferment from Abbas.

After Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006, Dahlan allegedly received American money and arms for an abortive anti-Hamas coup. Once ousted from Gaza, he relocated to the West Bank but was then accused of embezzling $18 million during his time of influence in Gaza, a case that has just been re-opened.

Yet he retains a base of support in Gaza and the refugee camps, which is one reason Abbas came to view him as a volatile potential challenger for Palestinian leadership. In 2011, Abbas threw his one-time ally out of the Fatah movement, even implicating him in Yasser Arafat’s death.

Dahlan now lives in Abu Dhabi and is understood to enjoy the support of the so-called Arab quartet, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. That did him little good in Fatah. Despite Arab interventions, Abbas refused to budge, and Dahlan was not invited to the 2016 general conference.

Simmering discontent

“Dahlan is past,” said Jibril Rajoub, who was Dahlan’s counterpart in the West Bank when Dahlan headed security forces in Gaza.

Rajoub came in a strong second after the perennially popular but imprisoned Marwan Barghouti in elections to the ruling Central Committee at the Fatah conference, and is now seen as another possible successor to Abbas, with whom he keeps good relations.

Perhaps he’s right. While two-thirds of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza wanted Abbas out in a March poll, only 4 percent picked Dahlan as successor.

Imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti consistently polls best among potential successors, in March securing the support of 33 percent of respondents, while 24 percent backed Hamas’ Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh.

To ordinary people in al-Amari, the wave of violent factional squabbling is not seen as anything new. “It’s an empty cycle,” said Iyad Abbas, 29, a paint shop employee who made it very clear the president was no relation of his.

But political bodies external to Fatah are capitalizing on the party’s infighting. “This was always a Fatah camp, but Hamas is stronger now,” said Abdulrahman of the popular committee. “And organizations like Islamic Jihad are getting stronger in the streets.”

And Israel is widely seen – from the plush front rooms of uptown Nablus to the stricken streets of Balata – as the main beneficiary of this internecine fighting.

“Seeing your own people fight, this makes you sick,” said Azizi, the filmmaker. “We are fighting each other for nothing – for an illusion called authority.”

Some compare the situation in the West Bank now to the period before the first intifada.

“It was the same in the first Intifada,” said Muhammad, 43, a resident of al-Amari camp who declined to give his full name. “The violence began in Balata and in Gaza, but soon it spread across the West Bank, like a ball of ice picking up snow.”

This time around, though, it is the Palestinians’ own ailing authority that is in the crosshairs.

Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist currently working in occupied Palestine. He regularly reports for The Independent and writes for VICE, Dazed and activist media, as well as publishing poetry and fiction. Twitter: @hashtagbroom. Website: mattbroomfield.contently.com