Nablus rocked by clashes

Palestinian policemen shoot during clashes with Palestinian militants in the Old City of the northern West Bank town of Nablus, Friday March 4, 2005. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

In a hospital room in Nablus’ Specialty Hospital, two gunshot victims share a room. The young men are both awake and alert, and their room is filled with relatives and colleagues. They look fine, though one only speaks with some difficulty and the other has to lie on his side because of his injuries.

The scene is not an unusual one in a Palestinian hospital after four years of the Intifada, but the circumstances of their shooting have rocked Nablus. The two are policemen and were wounded when clashes broke out between the police and members of an armed group, the Fateh-affiliated Al Awda Brigades, on March 4. Their colleagues are not only there to wish them well but to protect them from possible further attacks. A policeman is stationed at the entrance to the hospital.

Recriminations abound. Civil society groups in Nablus have called for a full and public inquiry into the events that led to the two policemen’s shooting and the wounding of a third person. The police have refused this, saying the matter is a “security issue” and will be dealt with as a security issue. The main armed groups of both Fateh and Hamas, meanwhile, have called for calm.

On the street, people are still reeling from Friday’s events.

“We cannot accept this,” said one elderly lady in Nablus’ old city. “I don’t ever remember it being this bad before. The police must take measures and those who make chaos must be punished. It is unacceptable that Palestinians are shooting at each other.”

An old city shopkeeper said the Friday shooting was as bad as the worst Israeli incursions. He, along with others in the old city, had been forced to close shop and seek cover as the clashes spread from the police station into the old city.

“Our duty,” says the new Nablus police commander Tareq Zaid in the job for only some two weeks, “is to enforce law and order. And everything we did [on Friday] was within the law. We were fired upon and we returned fire.”

“I was in the center [of Nablus],” says trade union lawyer Fathi Nasser, however. “I did not see any civilian open fire on the police. On the contrary, I saw the police firing at people at random. Instead of solving this problem quietly and with wisdom, the police escalated the situation.”

Everyone agrees that the Friday clashes started from a minor problem. A young man came to make a complaint at the police station in the morning. Not carrying his ID, he was told at the entrance to go and bring it. Somewhere along the line an argument ensued, and the police ejected the man, some say after a scuffle. According to Nasser, the man sported a bruise over his eye when he saw him later that day.

An hour or so passed and friends of the young man approached the station. The police say the group was armed, others disagree. The police say they were fired upon at the station and had to return fire. Others say no gunfire occurred there, it only happened later, when police pursued the group into the old city. The result, however, was running battles throughout the day at different times and mainly centered in the old city, a stronghold of the armed groups.

Three people, including the two policemen were wounded. No arrests were made, but eventually an uneasy calm returned. March 5 saw outraged civil society groups meet to discuss the situation. Nablus citizens have long complained of the absence of law and order, and people have been calling for a clampdown on armed elements in the city. Still, it was the police that came in for the most criticism at these meetings.

“People thought the police acted haphazardly,” says Nasser. “The problem came from a small incident and turned Nablus into a battlefield. The police need training in how to deal with people. If they treat people with respect, they will gain respect. If they treat people the way they were treated in other Arab countries, it will be unacceptable. If a stranger comes to your house, how do you treat him?”

Nasser, who also serves on the Sulha committee which is often called upon to deal with tribal and family feuds, says the police are setting a poor precedent by sidelining civil society institutions.

“We have been prepared to work with the police throughout. But if they continue like this I think they will find no one here is going to be willing to cooperate with them.”

Commander Zaid remains unrepentant.

“Look at the streets. The police control this city. Go to the main square and you will see order. We have instructions to impose law and order. We have carried out those instructions. We are doing what we do in the interests of everyone. I believe what happened will serve to bring back real authority for the police and restore its reputation.”

Zaid also ruled out a public inquiry.

“We will have an internal investigation to find if all officers acted according to the law. But the results of this investigation will not be publicized. Why should they be? It is an internal matter, and I am sure that all our police officers acted according to instructions, and I can assure you that those instructions where all within the law.”

Nasser Jouma’, the commander of the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Nablus, the main armed group affiliated to Fateh, finds himself somewhere in between the two sides.

“I understand that the police opened fire first with warning shots. But I also understand that there were elements in the group approaching the police station that have a poor record with weapons. People on both sides, unfortunately, played a negative role, in what was a small problem.”

Jouma’ sees a number of problems illustrated in Friday’s events.

“We have often called on the PA to end the chaos on the streets. That means confiscating weapons from those who do not use them in the interests of the resistance. There are many armed people who are common criminals. We believe some of those involved on Friday were such people.”

He says to distinguish between what he calls the “guns of the resistance” and the “guns of chaos” is not very difficult.

“The guns of the resistance are never used against other Palestinians, and the police are a part of the people. The guns of the resistance are never used to solve internal problems. Those who truly are involved in the resistance are not involved in internal chaos. That is unacceptable.”

But he also sees the proliferation of arms as the result of corruption in the security forces.

“Many of those involved in armed criminal activities are members of the security forces, and I blame the lack of a clean leadership in the security forces for not disarming such criminals. This chaos is a result of corruption.”

Abbas, says Jouma’, has focused on corruption in the political echelons, but needs to look at corruption in the security forces. “I believe this will be a serious test for Abu Mazen. To remove these people will be instrumental to institute the serious changes he says he wants to institute.”

He also acknowledges that reform will not be painless and one signal that they are indeed taking place will be an increase, in the short term, in what everyone calls the “chaos”.

“There are people interested in maintaining the status quo. They have benefited from the corruption, and they are resisting change. But this is not just about changing leaders, it is about setting clear programs for real change.”

Jouma’, before the Intifada an elected Nablus Fateh leader, says he considers himself part of the so-called young guard in Fateh. The fact that the leadership of the police is Fateh and the group involved in Friday’s shooting is also Fateh does not escape him.

“Most of the corruption in the PA comes from Fateh, because Fateh makes up most of the PA. In the next [Fateh] elections we are hoping for new faces who can implement the mechanisms of change.”

Nasser, meanwhile, says civil society groups in Nablus have petitioned President Mahmoud Abbas to investigate the matter.

“We want to remind him of the promises he made to Nablus when he came here [during presidential campaigning]. He promised law and order and said Nablus was in his heart. As someone said yesterday, he might find Nablus in his throat instead.”

This article was first published on 9 March 2005 in Palestine Report Online, a project of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center in Jerusalem, and is reprinted with permission. Palestine Report Online is a continuation of the print Palestine Report, which was established over twelve years ago as a means of informing English-speakers about Palestinians and their daily lives in the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.Also in this week’s edition: PR investigates yet another report on Palestinian curricula and finds Gaza families moving back to houses and land abandoned during the Intifada.