- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Law and order has broken down throughout the West Bank since Israel reoccupied the territory nearly two years ago, with militant youth gangs and a regression to clan rule filling the vacuum.

“People are reverting to tribal laws,” said Hasan Khreisheh, a Palestinian legislator who helped pass a resolution supporting a new deployment of Palestinian police officers last month.

“This is not a good situation, because in civilized countries, all things should be carried out by courts, not by returning to families and revenge,” Mr. Khreisheh said.

After the return of Israel’s army to West Bank cities, the Palestinian police force was stripped of its authority and officers were forbidden from wearing uniforms or carrying weapons.

Unarmed police officers in civilian clothes attempted to maintain some semblance of order but with little success.

In some places, the police are back on the streets in uniform for the first time since April 2000, still without weapons, in a new bid to battle waves of crime and vigilantism. In other areas, ruling militants refuse to let uniformed police back on the streets.

Although Israel is widely blamed for the disarray, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also is criticized.

“It’s a matter of the system,” Mr. Khreisheh said. “It’s a matter of Arafat, who’s ruling alone, so nothing has been improved.”

Armed gangs that carry out attacks on Israeli forces have stepped into the void, meting out their own justice on Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, intimidating journalists and court officials, and settling everyday disputes on their own.

Militant violence also has been directed against Palestinian political figures involved in the battles within Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party — evidence of the diminished strength of the leader.

In Nablus, where frequent incursions from Israeli troops have severely weakened any notion of centralized rule, the violence has taken the lives of many innocent bystanders.

In November, a botched assassination attempt on Nablus Mayor Hasam Shaqa resulted in the killing of his brother Ahmed.

In Jenin, where much of the power rests with 24-year-old Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade strongman Zaccariah Obeidi, government efforts to deploy the police have been rejected by the militants.

“We are not in a society like Sweden where we have the traditions of nonviolence,” said Nabil Khatib, a professor of communications at Bir Zeit University. “We are in a society where we are angry and have been under siege. So people are angry and irrational.”

The anarchy also has been blamed in the killing of Hamoudeh Aslan, a 14-year-old boy fatally shot in a confrontation between his relatives and another family that started as a wrangle over passengers between two taxi drivers.

Now, his father, Muhsen Aslan, is calling on the government to execute Iyad Abu Salim, the man jailed for the shooting.

But if the Palestinian Authority doesn’t satisfy the family’s demand for justice, Mr. Aslan said he would take matters into his hands and take the help of local members of Fatah from the Kalandia refugee neighborhood.

“Our purpose is the following: We are urging the government to execute him now, or we will kill him,” Mr. Aslan said. “We have no police, no weapons and no law. If there is such a law, nobody is implementing it.”

The violence has helped galvanize a long-simmering public discontent over the failure of Mr. Arafat’s government to maintain order.

“It created an outrage among the people, who complained that we can’t tolerate this situation where people don’t feel secure,” said Radi El-Jarai, a Palestinian deputy minister who was part of a group of politicians who appealed to Mr. Arafat to authorize the redeployment of the Palestinian police.

“The Israelis are not in the streets of Ramallah all the time, so the police can arrest people,” Mr. El-Jarai said.

Now, Palestinian police in freshly pressed navy blue uniforms can be found at the center of Ramallah directing traffic and even racing after lawbreakers.

The deployment was reached after an accord with the top brass of the Israeli military.

Previously, Palestinian government refrained from requesting policing responsibility for fear of appearing to the public as if it had accepted Israel’s reoccupation of the West Bank.

“We certainly don’t want a situation of instability in the cities, and we have for a long time wanted such an agreement,” said Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.

“Despite the difficult security situation, any effort on the Palestinian part to exercise full administrative and municipal responsibilities is welcome.”

But many Palestinians expressed doubt that uniformed policemen alone will restore a sense of order to their cities.

Without arms or a properly functioning legal system to back up the force, it will be difficult for the security forces to stand down armed gangs.

“You think about the criminals who are carrying an M-16. Will they be afraid of the Palestinian police,” said Bir Zeit University’s Mr. Khatib. “Who is stronger?”

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