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World & Nation

Why refugees in this West Bank camp are rebelling against the Palestinian Authority

West Bank refugee camp
Ahmed Zaabour, a resident of Balata refugee camp in the West Bank, is wanted by authorities as a crime suspect.
(Joshua Mitnick / For The Times)

Sun-bleached posters of Palestinian militants adorn storefronts at the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank in tribute to those killed in an uprising against Israel that faded more than a decade ago.

But rebelliousness remains in the camp today, much of it directed at the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rather than the Israeli occupation.

Palestinian authorities consider the camp on the edge of Nablus city a den of lawless gangs and illicit guns that is sowing instability throughout the area, and are trying to tame it.

Many Balata residents, meanwhile, vow they won’t submit to authorities they accuse of corruption, brutality, collaboration with Israel, and the economic neglect of a neighborhood that is home to about 27,000 people living in an area less than one square mile. 

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The tension has been deadly in some cases: Since June, four police officers have been killed by gunmen and four Nablus residents have died at the hands of police, according to the Independent Commission for Human Rights, a Palestinian human rights watchdog based in the West Bank, and the Nablus governorate.

“The authority ... says that we are living outside the law, producing weapons and carrying out executions,” said Ahmed Zaabour, 27, a camp resident who officials say runs a weapons dealing operation and is the most wanted crime suspect in Balata. “But they are the ones creating this atmosphere.” 

The impoverished camp illustrates a festering problem for Abbas, who has led the Palestinian Authority for more than a decade. Critics say Abbas has failed on many fronts, including not achieving statehood for Palestinians or peace with Israel.

The government under the 81-year-old leader, who has had health problems and has no clear successor, recently postponed municipal elections indefinitely for what were described as procedural problems. In addition, rifts exist within the president’s Fatah party, and Palestinians remain divided between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. 

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, leaves the Istishari Arab Hospital in Ramallah, West Bank, on Oct. 6, 2016
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, leaves the Istishari Arab Hospital in Ramallah, West Bank, on Oct. 6, 2016
(Atef Safadi / European Pressphoto Agency )

Observers say the struggle to rein in rogue Fatah gunmen in Nablus and other parts of the West Bank is a sign of the Abbas government’s weakness and of the potential for more trouble in the Palestinian territories.  

“If the PA is weakened further, this issue could contribute significantly to the state of anarchy,” said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster. “This breakdown in the security situation could suddenly explode and have dramatic consequences if it is unresolved.”

Nablus, a major Palestinian commercial and cultural hub that sits in a valley between two mountains in the northern West Bank, has a history of chaos. The Palestinian uprising against Israel, known as the second intifada, that started in 2000, weakened the central government and left a power vacuum filled by militias linked to Abbas’ Fatah party.  

Palestinian security officers say a recent crackdown on crime suspects is part of a campaign to restore order for ordinary Palestinians and break up gangs. With arms trade flowing freely in Nablus, gunfire at night is a regular occurrence and weapons are being used to settle private disputes, authorities said.

“We have security problems in Nablus, it’s not a secret,” said Nablus Gov. Akram Rajoub from an office in a fortress-like headquarters a few blocks from Balata. “The problem lies with gunmen.” 

A few days earlier, hundreds of marchers with machine guns packed the street outside Balata, accompanying the flag-draped body of a local man, who had been shot dead by police who accused passengers in his car of conducting surveillance on security forces’ movements for armed groups in the camp. A video from the funeral shows mourners chanting against both Abbas and Rajoub.

In late August, a much larger crowd filled the streets of the city with anti-Abbas shouts at a funeral for a local leader who died in police custody.

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“Nablus is the epicenter of the anti-Abbas movement in Palestine right now,” said Grant Rumley, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who focuses on Palestinian politics. “Gone are those days where the PA had some grip on security in the camps…. The longer Abbas goes on in this stagnant rule, where Fatah remains divided, and factions are positioning themselves for a post-Abbas vacuum, the more instability there is. The camps are the front line.”

Jamal Tiwari, a Palestinian lawmaker from Fatah and a patron of Balata whose office is guarded by an aide with a pistol, accused Abbas of enforcing a form of martial law akin to Hamas’ iron-fisted rule in Gaza.  

“The president’s status among the people has weakened,’’ Tiwari said. “That’s why the majority of the people don’t trust the behavior of the security forces and the PA.”

In a snack shop across from the entrance to the decades-old camp, Said Al Haj, 83, recently swept away soot from antigovernment riots that had filled the street outside with smoke a few days before.

“Both sides are to blame,’’ he said. “Palestinians shouldn’t be shooting at one another, but the people in the camp want to rule themselves, not [be subject to] the rule of the Palestinian Authority. Some people in the camp want the chaos. They make money from it.”

In the camp, several young men led a visitor through dark pathways between concrete buildings to  Zaabour’s home. In a small windowless salon, Zaabour rested a pistol on his chair while sitting under a television screen with images from six surveillance cameras monitoring the alleys. 

A group of Nablus militants gathered around on flowery red and black sofas. While Zaabour’s mother poured cups of Arabic coffee, he and his colleagues poured out complaints about the Palestinian Authority. 

Ibtisam Jaber, a 43-year-old Fatah activist, said party leaders want to block Balata representatives from gaining power.

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“If you don’t follow Abbas, you are nothing,’’ she said.

 Zaabour, who says he joined the anti-Israel insurgency as a teenager and spent time in jail, has the air of a local hero: A YouTube video with thousands of views shows a montage of images of him posing with machine guns and his daughters. 

He said in an interview that the poor in Balata who do not have connections to Abbas or to powerful clans are being targeted more than others for illegal activities — a charge denied by a spokesman for the Nablus governorate. Weapons are necessary for protection against Israel and the unemployed militants of Balata deal in weapons as a “creative” solution to the lack of work and lack of public assistance from the Palestinian Authority, Zaabour said. 

“Most of the young men in the camp are former prisoners in Israel. Now they don’t have jobs,” he said. “The moment we see there isn’t equal law for all, why respect this law?”

Mitnick is special correspondent.

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