A mayor resigns in protest


Nablus: The chaos in this once-promising West Bank city has driven its longtime leader to step down.

March 11, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NABLUS, West Bank - The sun shines bright, yet the blinds are drawn in Ghassan Shakah's office. He has been the mayor of this Palestinian city for a decade, and now he is living in fear.

A bodyguard stands at his door. Instead of a television or a computer on his desk, Shakah has a security monitor to keep an eye on the corridors of City Hall. His black Mercedes is bullet-proof.

Nablus, a city of 250,000 that sprawls through a valley in the Samarian Hills and seemed destined to become the commercial capital of the northern West Bank, has descended into chaos. The Palestinian Authority is losing its hold over society, and Nablus is a compelling example of the consequences.

Shakah, appointed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to run this city in 1994, has announced that he will resign May 1 to protest the anarchy that rules the city and what he says is the refusal of Palestinian leaders to impose law and order.

"I believe that the society in Nablus is about to collapse," he says, telling of his brother being murdered three months ago, a crime that he says police are unwilling to investigate.

Shakah, 61, is unusually blunt in criticizing Arafat, Palestinian police, judges and Palestinian society at large for the city's demoralizing disorder.

The Palestinian Authority blames Nablus' problems on the Israeli army, which has been in de facto control here for nearly two years. The army, which often clashes with rock-throwing youths and gunmen, allows Palestinian police to patrol but forbids them from carrying weapons, and Palestinian officials maintain that they cannot function while under military occupation.

Shakah has no authority over any of the overlapping Palestinian police agencies, whose members report to aides of Arafat. And he is critical of them for not doing enough to keep order, particularly for not disarming lawless gangs.

"How is it that citizens are allowed to walk around with guns but the police are not?" he asks.

The violence in Nablus might be a product of unrest within Arafat's Fatah party and of the growing discontent in the West Bank and Gaza, where large areas are ruled by gangs or militant factions. Young Fatah members are demanding new elections to oust what they consider an entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy virtually unchanged since Arafat appointed its members in the mid-1990s.

Many of the people being criticized and targeted in Nablus are public officials or well-connected businessmen, such as Shakah, who also has status as a lawyer, a member of a prominent family, a member of the Palestinian parliament and a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee - the panel that is supposed to set long-term goals for the former guerrilla movement.

"The situation is desperate, and we are all paying a price," says Shakah. "I am throwing a big stone at the Palestinian Authority to make them understand what is going on."

The forces running his city, he says, are "these people" - armed gangs, some of them organized into Mafia-like clans, roving city streets and engaging in extortion, kidnapping, murder and loan sharking. They are crimes almost unheard of in traditional Palestinian society.

Shakah has a full-time assistant who does nothing but document the violence. In the past 18 months, he has compiled a list of 33 people gunned down and killed by fellow citizens, in addition to an increasing number of arsons, beatings, car thefts and break-ins.

Last month, gunmen fired shots through the kitchen window of the board chairman of al-Najah University, narrowly missing his wife. The head of the city's education department found his car torched, as did the governor of the Nablus district.

Then there is the case of Anan Altaker, who owns a furniture store. Three months ago, he discovered that a co-worker was stealing his inventory and selling it out of his home. The man stole the company van, then broke into Altaker's personal car and ripped out the stereo.

"I know who did this," says Altaker, describing the ruins of his family business. "But I'm afraid to do anything. The person might come back to me and do something even worse. The police won't do anything. There is no place for us to go."

"People are very nervous," he says. "No one is secure. All we can do is accept what is happening and stay quiet. We are caught between two enemies. First we have the Israelis. Then we have our own people."

If "protect and serve" is the cliche on the American police beat, police here have coined a different slogan: "Waiting for orders."

Those orders would have to come from Ramallah, from Arafat's partly ruined headquarters, where the political infighting is nearly as ruthless as the gunfighting on the streets.

In the Gaza Strip, police forces are openly fighting each other, as a deposed security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, seeks to secure a power base, another indication that the Palestinian Authority is losing its hold on society.

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