- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

NABLUS, West Bank — An arms race by rival Palestinian militants has nearly doubled the price of guns in anticipation that fighting in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and Fatah militias will spread to the West Bank.

In recent months, the cost of an M-16 short-barrel rifle has surged to 9,000 Jordanian dinar, or about $13,000, from 5,000 dinar. Bullets cost a little more than a dollar, about twice the price in Israel, said Abu Ali, who claims to be the No. 1 arms dealer in the West Bank.

Mr. Ali, who uses a pseudonym for fear of arrest by the Israeli army, is a member of the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. He said he gives discounts to fellow Aqsa members and that he refuses to sell to rivals from Hamas, who buy their guns elsewhere.

“Hamas is buying a lot of weapons and they will pay anything for them,” said Mr. Ali, 27. “People don’t want money and they don’t want food. They want to prove their existence on the street.”

Mr. Ali declined to talk about his work at a public cafe.

So instead, the Palestinian militant hopped into a stolen sedan and drove a reporter to an empty industrial area on the outskirts of the city, where he pulled out a military-issue pistol with “Israel Military Industries” engraved on the barrel.

“Whatever you want I can get,” he said.

Since Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority in March, tension between Hamas- and Fatah-affiliated militias has frequently exploded into street warfare.

The crisis has been sharpened by the strain of an international aid boycott of the Hamas government.

Government salaries of more than 140,000 public-sector employees, most of them linked to Fatah, have gone unpaid. While teachers and bureaucrats walked off the job, security officers have staged violent protests, and the government has ceased to function.

As the vacuum of lawlessness that has existed in the Palestinian territories for years grows even wider, rival security outfits as well as gunmen from mafialike clans are moving to fill the gap.

As the inscription on Mr. Ali’s pistol indicates, the source of most of the weapons is Israel. The dealer says he acquires guns from Arab Israelis as well as dealers from Israel’s criminal underworld.

Just after dusk at the city municipality, the echo of gunfire mingled with normal din of car horns. It’s a sound that’s become part of Nablus’ background noise, explained Mayor Adly Yaish.

“When we are happy we shoot. When we are angry we shoot” he sighed. “At funerals we shoot, and at weddings we shoot. It’s not good, of course.”

Of all the West Bank cities, Nablus and its refugee camps are known as the most resilient stronghold of Palestinian militancy. Israel’s army has forbidden Palestinian police from carrying guns in the city for fear they might be used against Israeli soldiers during the frequent raids in the city.

And so, militants are left free to openly brandish their weapons in carjackings and robberies. Nablus residents insist there are two types of weapons in the city: Those used in “national” attacks against Israel and those used in criminal activity.

Mr. Yaish, the mayor, said he is worried that the guns will be used in a new way. Speculation that Hamas wants to establish its own security force in the West Bank is fueling concern that internecine fighting of recent months in Gaza may spread to the West Bank, where Fatah is dominant.

“I am working very hard to prevent this from happening,” said the mayor, who explains he speaks to both Hamas and Fatah. “In Nablus we can solve our problems without force.”

But that principle might be difficult to explain to militants in their teens and twenties for whom guns have become a sort of youth culture. In the warrens of the Balata refugee district, Ibrahim Muroufi takes his prized possession, an M-16 rifle with a sniper scope, and lays it across his lap.

Opposite the 22-year-old Aqsa Brigades member, a computer monitor flashes a slide show of young men in a variety of poses with guns: Reclining on a bed, peering down from a balcony in ambush, and against a picture studio’s illustrated backdrop of a mansion foyer.

“This is part of my hobby and identity,” said Mr. Muroufi. “If I were to get a million dollars, I would spend it entirely on weapons.”

Mr. Muroufi’s mother explained why Nablus parents can’t stand in the way of children who take up arms: “My children carry arms because there is no security. If I could carry a weapon, I would, too.”

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