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memri
August 31, 2016 No.
1266

Recent Violence In Nablus Reveals Rifts In Fatah, Triggers Calls For Tackling Fundamental Problems In Palestinian Society

By: B. Shanee*

Introduction

In recent weeks, the Palestinian press has featured numerous reports on unrest and violence in the West Bank city of Nablus; the violence culminated, during the night between August 22 and 23, in the killing of Ahmad Halawa, an official in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah movement, by PA security forces. According to official PA reports, Halawa, who belongs to a distinguished Nablus family and who was also an officer in the PA police, was arrested in the middle of the night and brought to Al-Junaid prison in Nablus, where he was attacked and beaten to death by security personnel.[1]

The day after Halawa's killing, on August 23, Nablus Governor Akram Al-Rajoub called Halawa the "brains" behind the August 20 killing of two PA security personnel and said that his death would be investigated.[2] Other sources reported that Halawa's body had showed signs of torture.[3]


Ahmad Halawa, seen here in Palestinian police uniform (Facebook.com/RasAlynNabls, August 23, 2016)

Halawa's killing marked the culmination of a series of violent clashes during the last few months between PA security forces and local armed forces, some of which belong to Fatah.[4] These clashes stemmed from the refusal of influential families in the city to accept the PA's authority. Some of these families, including the Halawa family, belong to factions within Fatah that do not support Fatah Chairman and PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas.

Ahmad Halawa's killing enraged many of the city's residents, who regarded it as a grave and unjustified attack on a member of a prominent local family. The news of his death sparked further clashes that included gunfights between locals who support the Halawa family, some of them Fatah members, and PA security forces;  numerous arrests, and a general strike announced by the Nablus chamber of commerce. The killing also sent shockwaves through the Fatah movement in Nablus: the movement harshly condemned the activity of the PA security forces and declared a period of mourning in the city; moreover, many Fatah members quit the movement as a gesture of solidarity with the Halawa family and in protest of the PA security forces' activity.

In an attempt to alleviate tensions, the PA hastened to express regret over Halawa's killing, but clarified that  its security forces would continue to pursue lawbreakers and act to enforce the law and ensure public safety. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah called the killing an irregular incident that would be addressed by the government, and added that the government would not allow anyone to take the law into their own hands.[5] The PA government announced that it would establish a special commission, headed by Justice Minister 'Ali Abu Diak, to investigate the killing. Security forces spokesman 'Adnan Al-Damiri also called the killing irregular, adding that it was not in accordance with either the security forces' policy or moral standards and had not benefited the forces in any way.[6]

In response to the rioting that followed Halawa's death, Prime Minister Hamdallah said that anyone, including security personnel, found responsible for harm to people or to the residents' security would face prosecution.[7]

In general, the PA framed the violent clashes in Nablus in recent weeks in terms of PA security forces combatting lawless local criminal elements in order to prevent security chaos in the city. However, as stated, Halawa's killing showed that the violence in the city is a manifestation of the power struggle among various factions within Fatah that seek to impose their authority in Nablus.  Reports in the Palestinian press also indicate that the situation was made worse by its timing - that is, in the run-up to the municipality elections set for October 8, 2016. The preparations for the elections have exacerbated existing tensions between local power brokers in the West Bank, revealing their complete rejection of the PA's authority and underscoring the PA's inability to maintain control of the city.

The violent incidents in Nablus in the recent weeks were addressed in articles in the PA press. Some writers took the opportunity to criticize the anarchy that prevails in Palestinian society and the PA's deficient handling of local governance. Some called for acknowledging that the current chaos in Nablus was the result of failures in upbringing and culture, and cannot be blamed on the Israeli occupation. Others noted that the lawlessness in the city was symptomatic of root problems in PA society, pointing especially to the absence of civic values and of a sense of national affiliation, as well as to the prioritizing of personal interests above national ones. The writers also pointed out the grave deficiencies in the Palestinian political system and the ruling institutions' lack of legitimacy.

This report will review reactions in Nablus and in the ranks of Fatah to Halawa's killing, as well as criticism in the Palestinian press in the recent weeks over the events in the city.

In Nablus After Halawa's Killing: Strikes, Gunfights, And Calls To Fire PA Officials

The killing of Halawa, who was referred to by the Nablus governor as the "brains" behind the killing two days previously of two Palestinian security personnel, caused an uproar in the city. In the hours after his death was announced, the businessmen's forum in the city along with a number of politicians and other prominent citizens declared a three-day city-wide general strike, during which businesses and stores in Nablus old city and other urban centers were closed.[8] During the strike, as well as following Halawa's funeral on August 28, there were daily violent clashes between Nablus residents enraged by the recent killings in the city, chiefly Ahmad Al-Halawa's, and security forces, which included rock throwing and gunfights; security forces arrested a number of citizens.[9]


Violent protest in Nablus (Facebook.com/Nablus.alhadath, August 23, 2016)

The public outcry over Halawa's killing was aimed against Nablus Governor Akram Al-Rajoub and Palestinian National Security Forces Commander Nidal Abu Dukhan. A communique released by the Halawa family demanded that both be fired immediately, and this call was reiterated at a demonstration in Nablus after the news of his death broke.[10] Nablus businessmen forum chairman Nidal Al-Bazra also called for Governor Al-Rajoub to be fired.[11] There was also criticism of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah, who is also interior minister, with the Nablus Bar Association calling for the government to disband.[12]

It should be noted that some Nablus public figures' demands were less extreme; they asked only that PA security forces withdraw from the city and that the PA apologize for killing of Halawa and causing unrest in the city.[13]    


Image posted on Nablus Facebook page showing Nablus Governor Akram Al-Rajoub with the text "Be gone, murderer! It would be a shame if we forced you out of this world." (Facebook.com/1593460430878551, August 24, 2016)

Inside Fatah After Nablus Events: Internal Strife, Mass Resignations

The extreme reactions in Fatah to the events in Nablus following the killing of Halawa indicated that there is a major crisis within the movement between supporters of 'Abbas and those who do not support him. On August 23, after it became known that Halawa had been killed, the Fatah party in the Palestinian Legislative Council announced that the killing had violated both Palestinian law and civil honor and called for security forces to withdraw from Nablus' Old City, in which most of the violent incidents had taken place. The party added that it would establish its own investigative commission, separate from the government's.[14] Luai 'Abdo, a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council in Nablus, also called for Prime Minister Al-Hamdallah to be fired.[15] Additionally, Fatah Palestinian Legislative Council member Jamal Al-Tirawi was one of the politicians who called for a general strike.[16]

Halawa's killing and the PA security forces' activity in Nablus also enraged Fatah prisoners incarcerated in Israel and movement activists in the city. In a communique posted on social media, some Fatah prisoners argued that the security forces' actions had lost them their legitimacy as far as they were concerned.[17] Additionally, in the 48 hours following the news of Halawa's death, dozens of Fatah members in Nablus, including released prisoners, announced on social media that they were quitting the movement.[18]


Fatah prisoners' communique proclaiming that security forces have lost their legitimacy; posted by Fatah member Yasser Khalili, who was among those who quit the movement following the killing of Halawa  (Facebook.com/Yasser.khalili.9, August 24, 2016)        

 
Facebook announcements by Fatah members Rami Jum'a and Nour Halawa that they were quitting the movement (Facebook.com, August 23-24, 2016)

The Nablus unrest also raised questions regarding whether the municipal elections, set for October 8, 2016, would be held. Thus, Fatah and other political parties announced on August 25, two days after Halawa's killing, that they would postpone filing their candidate lists for a month, due to "the harsh circumstances and consequences witnessed by Nablus." Nevertheless, they filed their lists that same day, stating that this would help bring life back to normal.[19]

Palestinian Writers: The Nablus Violence Is The Result Of PA Incompetence - And A Symptom Of Fundamental Problems That Must Be Dealt With

Even before Halawa's killing, the Nablus unrest was widely covered by the independent Palestinian  media, but less widely by official PA media, likely due to the latter's unease over the conflicts among Fatah factions. Some of this media coverage was harshly critical of the PA, stating that it had for years consistently neglected to enforce the law, even protecting lawbreakers in an attempt to buy stability. Other articles called the violence and security anarchy a symptom of the erosion of Palestinian civil society, due to more fundamental problems such as the absence of basic civic values and the rule of law, and the lack of positive societal values. All these critics called on the PA leadership not to settle for local, short-term fixes for this situation, but to address them from the root - or, they warned, PA society would slide into the abyss.

The following are excerpts from leading articles on the Nablus unrest that appeared in the independent Palestinian and official PA press in the weeks leading up to and immediately following the killing of Halawa.

Fatah Activist In Nablus Prior To Halawa's Killing: This Is What Happens When We Protect Those Who Wreak Havoc

In an August 20, 2016 article, Nablus Fatah activist Raed Al-Dab'i discussed the unrest in Nablus and criticized the PA's perpetual inability to tackle the militarization and the thuggery in the Palestinian territories. He wrote that its protection of criminals has led to the prevailing anarchy in the fabric of Palestinian society, adding that "since its establishment in 1994, the PA has been lax, dealing with security anarchy in an unfocused manner and by means of tribalism - such that 'sweeping things under the rug' takes priority over the law, and burying your head in the sand takes precedence over diligence and a serious approach. It does this on pretexts and excuses that are groundless because they have already been proven to be absolute failures by stubborn reality.

"Behold, the demon of security anarchy, militarization and thuggery threatens our public safety and social fabric. They are the result of the militarization, the weapons anarchy and protection for the instigators of chaos. Intervening in their favor, and supplying money, influence, and protection [to them], have taken over the public arena today, threatening the dreams of our children as well as our citizens' right to sleep peacefully and live stable lives... How many perpetrators of crimes committed in the homeland are still free, even though those in charge of law enforcement know who they are [?!]...

"It is not true that the [Israeli] occupier is the only cause of crime... We must acknowledge that this chaos and insecurity are the result of an upbringing and culture based on violence and on rebellion against proper rules and values, and that they feed on our weakness and passivity and on the hypocritical actions on the part of large groups among us vis-à-vis these instigators of chaos...

"The situation in Nablus and other cities is merely the natural outcome of a culture that has deviated from the values of our people, and is as far from them as east is from west... The struggle against anarchy and chaos will be carried out by restoring hope [to society], creating appropriate jobs for youth, raising awareness, building youth clubs, providing scholarships, [establishing] public parks and sports facilities, and eliminating illiteracy, partisanship, and racism."[20]

Former PA Minister: The Continuing Deterioration Of The Security Situation In The PA Moves Us Farther Away From The Dream Of A Palestinian State

Nabil 'Amr, former parliamentary affairs minister and Palestinian Legislative Council member, warned, in an article published August 24, the day after Halawa's killing, that the ongoing deterioration of security in the Palestinian territories could completely thwart Palestinian efforts to establish a state. The public, he said, would distance itself from any regime that could not ensure its security, and he called for tackling security problems by curing the ills of the Palestinian political system: "The infrastructure for our eternal dream of liberty, independence, and the establishment of a state is made up of both security and a political system. We have been given a reasonable opportunity to prove our ability to establish such an infrastructure, and have formed security apparatuses that were partially funded, equipped, and trained by regional and global [elements]. We also established a parliamentary political system that aspires to imitate the best institutional democratic regimes in the world...

"But this progress soon came to a halt, and, as is usual in such cases, even began to backslide - so that 25 years later, we found ourselves in a state of confusion, with no clear signs [of progress] - not towards the dream of a fully [independent] state, not towards an [operational political] system, and not in security...

"Because horizontal and vertical structural schisms [i.e. the Fatah-Hamas rift as well as intra-Fatah divisions] have brought down our political system, a continued undermining of our security situation - even if only by bloody clan disputes or by fighting between those who support law and order and those who oppose it - would be more than enough to cripple our national experience from right here at home. This is because the public will distance itself from a regime that cannot provide security and quiet...

"Let us awaken and examine this malady - and not fall into the forbidden trap of tackling security problems on a strictly technical [law-enforcement] level despite this matter's importance and urgency. We must focus our attention on the deep roots [of the problem] - that is, our political system. If we do not rid ourselves of this fatal flaw within it, we will always be jumping from one problem to the next, our society will have no security, and we will move farther and farther from our dream of a state, instead of closer to it!"[21]

Former PA Minister: The Problem Is A Lack Civic Norms And Respect For The Law, And The Preference Of Narrow Interests

Former PA prisoners affairs minister and Al-Ayyam columnist Ashraf Al-'Ajrami also called not to make do with pinpoint treatment of the security chaos in Nablus. According to him, this chaos is just a symptom of deeper problems in Palestinian society, chiefly the weakness of civil society and the lack of civic norms and respect for the law. Al-'Ajrami said that this state has caused people and groups to place their personal interests ahead of the national public interest, which brought about Fatah's downfall in the 2006 elections. He wrote: "[Even] if at some point we require force to deal with expressions of chaos, force alone is not enough to fundamentally deal with a phenomenon that has social, economic, and occasionally also political aspects, in addition to the security ones... The heart of the problem is the lack of civic norms, respect for the law, and the rights of others. This problem stems from the weak status of parties and civil society in general, since society suffers a decline in values of [national] belonging and in positive values that place public interests ahead of any sectorial or personal ones. Personal interests have become decisive and determine the behavior of individuals and groups and make it hard to take principled positions that benefit the public.

"Take for example the process of elections... and you will find that preferring personal interests was the reason Fatah lost the parliamentary elections in 2006 and is also one of the problems [currently] thwarting the agreement on unified lists to represent the movement in the coming [municipal] elections..."[22]

It should be mentioned that in July, following the death of two Palestinian security forces members in Nablus, Al-'Ajrami published an article warning of a deterioration of the security situation in the city, alongside a deterioration in the PA's political and media situation. He wrote: "The truth is that we are in the worst possible situation and are quickly sliding into an abyss. It's not just our domestic performance as a governing body whose popularity has reached an all-time low [because] barely a third of the public [supports it]. The security situation is steadily slipping [towards chaos]... that benefits Israel. [In addition,] our political and media message is confused, a sort of mixture of a rational [consideration] of our national interest and an escalating extremism that is [the result of] being swayed by sectors of the public who are affected by the crimes of the occupation. It is difficult to see our media taking up a clear discourse reflecting a unified leadership stance that helps to shape public opinion [in ways that] promote our interests."[23]

Palestinian Columnist: Chaos In Nablus Indicative Of Other Areas As Well

In a July 5, 2016 article in Al-Ayyam, columnist Hani Al-Masri reviewed the reasons for the security chaos in Nablus, citing a decline in the status of the judiciary and erosion of the legitimacy of Palestinian leadership institutions, as well as the internal struggle in Fatah and the PA. He stressed that violence like in Nablus also takes place elsewhere in the West Bank: "Gunfire at night in Nablus has become routine and respect for the PA is at a low point, not only because it does not provide security and calm for the citizens, but because it cannot provide it even for its own people... The [Palestinian] Authority buys the satisfaction of armed men and prevents the damage they could cause by meeting their demands. This is what it did after the Second Intifada when it accepted thugs and law-breakers into its ranks to prevent their damage without holding them accountable for their acts or rehabilitating them. This did provide security initially, but was a ticking time bomb that was destined to explode eventually and fuel a conflagration...

"Additionally, there has been a decline in the status of the judiciary and an erosion in the legitimacy of the president, leadership, PLO, PA, factions, professional unions, associations, etc. This is [assuming] they even have any legitimacy left... What makes things worse is the rife corruption with no accountability and no deterrence; the widening schism; the deteriorating economic and social situation; the increase in gaps between rich and poor; the weakening middle class; and the increase in immigration and unemployment.

"What makes things even worse is the struggle between factions within the PA and Fatah over profits, jobs, authority, agencies, and companies; the intensifying hidden struggle regarding [the succession] of PA president ['Abbas] in light of the fact that we do not know how to transfer power due to the schism, lack of consent, and lack of true desire to hold elections, as well as due to the struggle with Muhammad Dahlan and his men and the Arab support he receives.

"What is happening in Nablus today is indicative of what is happening in other areas, since on the day when five were killed in Nablus and Ya'bad, there were twelve armed clashes in the West Bank. The solution is not to make decisions like 'strike with an iron fist' that mostly remain on paper, or expect the PA to act alone. The solution lies in a national awakening based on a reexamination of the Palestinian matter... the revival of national institutions and identity... and the redrafting of the national program in a way that grants security and quiet to the citizen and the homeland and paves the path of the struggle towards liberation, return, national independence, and sovereignty."[24]

 
Image of Ahmad Halawa with the text "Nablus Bleeds" that was posted on social media (Facebook.com/nablesgher, August 23, 2016)

 

*B. Shanee is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), August 23, 2016.

[2] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), August 23, 2016.

[3] Al-Quds (East Jerusalem), August 24, 2016.

[4] Notable incidents include gunfire targeting the home of former Nablus mayor and PLO Executive Committee member Ghassan Al-Shak'a on the night of June 1, 2016, Maannews.net, June 1, 2016; the death of two security forces members during a gunfight with wanted men on June 30, 2016, Amad.ps, July 1, 2016; Alhadath.ps, June 30, 2016; and armed clashes between PA security forces and local Nablus elements in the three days prior to Halawa's death, which claimed the lives of the two aforementioned security forces members and two locals, including another member of the Halawa family. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), August 20, 2016, wattan24.com, August 19, 2016. Another event indicating instability in Nablus was the temporary suspension of Nablus governor Akram Al-Rajoub between April 27 and June 7 with no reason given. Alwatanvoice.com, June 6, 2016.

[5] Wafa.ps, August 23, 2016; Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), August 25, 2016.

[6] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), August 25, 2016.

[7] A-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), August 26, 2016.

[8] Nabluslive.net, August 23, 2016.

[9] Nabluslive.net, August 25, 2016; Nablus24.com, August 24; Facebook.com/asra.nablus, August 28, 2016.

[10] Facebook.com/QudsN, August 23, 2016; Nabluslive.net, August 24, 2016.

[11] Palinfo.com, August 23, 2016; Maannews.com, August 23, 2016.

[12] Palinfo.com, August 23, 2016.

[13] Nabluslive.net, August 23, 27, 2016.

[14] Paltoday.ps, August 23, 2016; Wafa.ps, August 23, 2016.

[15] Al-Risala (Gaza), August 23, 2016.

[16] Nabluslive.net, August 23, 2016.

[17] Facebook.com/Yasser.khalili.9, August 24, 2016; Almustaqbal-a.com, August 24, 2016.

[18] Qudsn.ps, August 23, 2016; Nabluslive.net, August 25, 2016.

[19] Nabluslive.net, August 25, 2016.

[20] Maannews.net, August 21, 2016.

[21] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), August 24, 2016.

[22] Al-Ayyam (PA), August 24, 2016.

[24] Al-Ayyam (PA), July 5, 2016.