After Israel’s Hasty Departure, PLO Must Control Tough Nablus
NABLUS, West Bank (AP) _ After a hasty withdrawal by Israeli troops, Palestinian police set out today to confront what may be their biggest challenge in the West Bank: controlling violent streets ruled by armed militias.
``Nablus is in a state of anarchy,″ said Nahed Abdo, one of dozens of Fatah Hawks, a group of self-declared enforcers who have been knee-capping and beating suspected informers and criminals. The biggest city in the West Bank, Nablus also has the largest concentration of these vigilantes.
With the withdrawal from Nablus, the third town turned over to Palestinian control, the Israel-PLO autonomy agreement is well under way. More than half of the 1.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are now under self-rule. Israeli troops are to leave most West Bank towns and villages by the end of year.
Joy was the predominant mood here today, just hours after the last Israeli soldiers left the West Bank’s largest city, ending 28 years of occupation. In all, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat is sending 1,200 police to Nablus, which with its neighboring villages has 200,000 residents.
Thousands of Palestinians waved flags and danced in the streets and on the rooftops of the old Israeli military headquarters, chanting: ``The army is gone, the army is gone.″
But the transfer of power was not entirely smooth. Repeated stone-throwing clashes in the past week led Israel to withdraw from Nablus 24 hours earlier than planned, in an effort to avoid fighting.
Troops tried to leave quietly Monday night, with no prior announcement. But word got out. Thousands of Palestinians converged on the military headquarters where a dozen Israeli soldiers had stayed behind to hand over the building.
Residents jumped on the fences and shot in the air while the soldiers were still inside. The Israelis quickly handed the complex to the Palestinians without ceremony, and then left, with Palestinian police shielding them from the crowd.
As the Israelis left, Fatah Hawks mingled in the jubilant crowd. They fired hundreds of bullets in the air from their M-16 and Kalashnikov assault rifles. A banner strung up today across the main street at the entrance of town read: ``Fatah Hawks welcome the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat.″
The feared leader of the group, Ahmed Tabouk, told Israel radio today that he supports the peace agreement and that he and his men want to join the Palestinian police. Tabouk’s gang has been responsible for several killings and for wounding dozens of Nablus residents.
Still, it was not clear whether the Fatah Hawks would readily disarm and submit to a new authority.
The Palestinian police chief, Brig. Gen. Nasr Yousef, hinted today that he would not try to confront the Hawks right away, and would not immediately demand they surrender their weapons.
Yousef was optimistic his men could do the job. ``Nablus was violent against the occupation ... but now there will be no security violations or chaos.″
But Israeli media commentators were skeptical about the chances for calm in Nablus.
``The city, which has always been the most difficult to control in the West Bank, is more tough and scaly than ever before,″ said an editorial in the Haaretz daily newspaper.
``Armed hooligans cruise around, shooting at types they don’t like, gang members wring protection money from merchants, the arms market is flourishing and joint efforts to shake the violent heritage of the uprising have failed.″