NABLUS, WEST BANK — PALESTINE Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat scored an important victory over a renegade PLO activist Sunday and moved to strengthen the hold of his Palestinian Authority (PA) on this newly autonomous West Bank town.
Palestinian police arrested Fatah Hawk leader Ahmad Tabouq, along with 40 of his followers. Mr. Tabouq's renegade group, which was originally mandated to fight crime here but took on a life of its own, is accused by community leaders of being responsible for the deaths of three people and the wounding of as many as 40 others in the last six months.
Tabouq was immensely popular in Nablus's Casbah - the centuries-old marketplace in the old city - for his role in the intifadah, the sustained Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation of the West Bank that began in 1987.
This is the first time that armed Palestinian police have confronted a fellow member of Mr. Arafat's dominant Fatah faction of the PLO, which he founded in 1965 to fight for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Since most Israeli soldiers withdrew from the center of the town several months ago, Tabouq and his followers had moved into the vacuum and taken the law into their own hands: calling work strikes, dispensing arbitrary justice, and extorting money from merchants, according to community leaders and Palestinian officials.
''The charges against Tabouq are that he has killed at least three people in the town and crippled at least 23,'' says Said Kanan, chairman of the board of the trustees of the independent Center for Palestinian Research and Studies in Nablus, a respected human rights and pro-democracy group.
''I am sure he will be court-martialed in a military court,'' Mr. Kanan says, adding that Tabouq was a menace to the society who had terrorized Nablus for too long.
''Tabouq moved into the vacuum left by the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and thought that he and his gangsters could take the law into their own hands and create a force within the Palestinian Authority,'' Kanan adds. ''His followers thought that they could win positions in the PA by staying with him.''
Arafat cracks the whip
Arafat gave the orders for Tabouq's arrest after visiting the town for the first time since 1967 on Friday. To a crowd of about 40,000 enthusiastic supporters he announced his candidacy for president in the first Palestinian elections scheduled to be held Jan. 20.
Tabouq last surfaced on Dec. 7, a day after Israeli newspapers carried a report that he had been killed in a shootout. He boasted about his power in the city in several spontaneous interviews.
''I don't kill people - I shoot them in the knees,'' Tabouq told the Monitor, adding that thousands of people in the town had celebrated when they realized that reports of his death were false.
Holding aloft a machine gun and flanked by several armed aides, Tabouq said that he wanted to tell the world that he was alive and stronger than ever.
Palestinian power struggle
Nablus, which was transferred to Palestinian rule a week ago, was the scene of a violent and damaging split between Tabouq's renegade street faction of Fatah and other elements of the PA's security apparatus.
His actions also were fanning tensions between the PLO street activists of the intifadah and the wealthy Palestinian families who control the town's economy and are loyal to Arafat.
Some community leaders worried that Tabouq's group could win the power struggle, and that Arafat would be forced to give the renegade leader a senior position in the Palestinian security apparatus.
But pressure from Palestinian intellectuals in the town appears to have convinced Arafat that Tabouq had to be rooted out at all costs.
''I told Arafat when I spoke to him about 10 days ago that Tabouq should be put in jail,'' Kanan says. ''Arafat assured me that the law would take its course, and he would not interfere with the legal process.
''The PA has demonstrated that it is strong and determined enough to prove its power in the street,'' Kanan adds. ''I think this is the end of a very ugly episode.''