Restive Nablus challenges Fatah's Abbas
The ability of the Palestinian president to rein in the city could bolster his position in upcoming talks with Israelis.
Nablus, West Bank
Over the course of the second Palestinian intifada, this city became the West Bank's capital for car thefts, kidnappings, and suicide bombers.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, with 300 security officers from the Palestinian Authority (PA) freshly deployed around Nablus, the city has become a testing ground for an embattled Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Analysts say that Mr. Abbas must prove to his American and Israeli supporters that he has the power to control this defiant city, which could go the way of the Gaza Strip if central government control is not exerted. Abbas's Fatah Party was routed from Gaza in a violent coup led by its rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas.
On Sunday, as PA policemen began looking for stolen cars and armed militants at checkpoints around Nablus, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem to resolve issues getting in the way of bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the table for a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., later this year.
Israel and the Palestinians are still at odds over a joint document for the conference, which would serve as a launching pad for negotiations on core issues such as borders and the fate of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees.
Much of the progress at the peace table is expected to be predicated on Palestinian police in Nablus going after the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the insubordinate foot soldiers of Abbas's own party.
"For the Americans and the Israelis, it is important because it makes the partner more credible instead of just being a paper tiger. How can the PA sit at a table and negotiate big issues if it can't solve small issues like an assertion of its own power?" asks Mohammed Dajani, a professor of political science at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.
"This is an attempt to give the PA some stature and some respect among Palestinians by saying it can enforce its sovereignty. The rule of the gangs was beginning to grow here as it was in Gaza. It was spreading to the West Bank. Unless the PA reasserts their presence and authority within society, then everyone can buy a gun and establish their own fiefdoms," he says.
And so, after being banned by Israel for most of the intifada, PA security officers armed with AK-47 machine guns in Nablus have returned to the streets in their green patrol jeeps. Over the weekend, Israeli forces at the Nablus perimeter let in hundreds of reinforcements fresh from European-run training courses in the West Bank city of Jericho.
Even though the Palestinian police don't have the last word on security in Nablus like in the 1990s – Israel's army is reserving the right to chase after fugitive militants in the city when it sees fit – expectations are high among residents who want to see police officers arrest those responsible for frequent shooting sprees and carjackings.
"The big challenge is Nablus. We have taken Nablus as a model. And we would like to perform," says Intelligence Chief Tawfiq Tirawi, considered the top PA security chief in the West Bank. "If we are capable of consolidating law and order in Nablus, then the rest of the West Bank is a piece of cake."