Militant rampage raises questions about Abbas's control

Palestinian fugitives went on a shooting spree late Wednesday in Ramallah.

Three months after campaigning for the presidency on a pledge to bring law and order to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas's authority has been challenged on his home turf by a rampage of militant gunmen.

The shooting escapade started late Wednesday night at the Muqata, Mr. Abbas's headquarters here, after officials ordered the eviction of armed fugitives who had been given refuge there by the late Yasser Arafat. After the gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militia, which is affiliated with Abbas's Fatah movement, fired inside the compound, they went onto the street and shot up restaurants and stores.

Although the shooting spree injured no one, it is raising fresh questions about whether the Palestinian Authority (PA) or armed militants control the streets of Palestinian cities.

"The Palestinian Authority has to act immediately to arrest and punish those responsible," says political analyst Hani Masri. "If they don't, Abbas will find himself becoming a symbolic president who will not be able to control anything."

Adding to the sense of West Bank lawlessness, a mob of angry Palestinians burned down a Palestinian police roadblock in the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem Thursday, after officers shot and wounded a man, security officials said.

The PA issued a statement assuring business owners they would be compensated for the destruction caused in the heart of the city by the group of about 10 gunmen late Wednesday.

After the shooting spree, restaurateur Osama Khalaf surveyed the bullet holes, overturned tables, and shattered glass in his posh Darna restaurant, a favorite of PA officials. The moistness in Mr. Khalaf's eyes and his halting speech showed that something that money cannot replace has been taken from him by the gunmen: his sense of personal security. "They struck every corner of this place," he says, pointing to bullet holes above the sink, in the beverage refrigerator and in the television of the VIP lounge.

It was a pleasant spring night, and there were about 180 people inside the restaurant and on its terrace, when the gunmen stormed in and began shooting, Khalaf said. "People ran into the kitchen to hide, but the gunmen then started shooting in the kitchen,"

Martin Lentz, a music teacher who is visiting Ramallah from Germany, says; "I went outside and hid behind the wall and waited for the shooting to end."

"I hope that this incident gives enough support to the Palestinian Authority to put an end to such people," Khalaf says.

The PA's statement read: "The PA has taken urgent steps to reestablish security, deal with the perpetrators, and protect public property. Units are deployed to prevent any new aggression."

But while analysts predicted that PA security forces might make several arrests, they discounted the possibility of a wide-ranging crack down on militants in the West Bank. Abbas, they say, simply lacks the legitimacy to move against people who over the past four years of fighting with Israel have come to be seen by many as valiant resisters of the occupation.

"If he acts like a puppet in the hands of Israel, people will turn against him," says Palestinian journalist Said Ghazali. "He will face a lot of trouble not only from militants but from ordinary people who won't understand why he is arresting strugglers."

The eviction from the Muqata was triggered by an abduction of a PA official and other crimes allegedly committed by the fugitives in recent weeks, officials said. A spokesman for the Al Aqsa brigades disassociated himself from those who perpetrated the rampage and backed the decision to evict them from the Muqata. But he criticized Abbas for, in his view, not followed through on promises to fugitives during the election campaign that they would be given positions in the Palestinian security forces and be able to live free from fear of being pursued by Israel.

In Mr. Ghazali's view, after four years in which there has been no functioning police, no prisons, and rampant lawlessness on the streets, Abbas would need time and also tangible concessions from Israel that improve daily life to succeed in establishing his rule.

"The damage of four years cannot be repaired in months, even if there are good intentions," he says. In order to gain backing for disarming militants, Abbas "needs to create a gap between the militants and the people by convincing people that what he is doing is good for them," he says.

However, Israel has not eased the strictures on movement and other curbs that would enable a revival of economic life and generate a feeling of positive change, Ghazali says. Israeli officials say the strictures are needed since there is still a significant threat of attacks. They have sharply criticized Abbas for not actively dismantling the armed groups.

"If you can achieve positive things for people then there is an alternative to the militants," Ghazali says. "But you can't sell people slogans when their reality is still miserable."

Samir Zedan and wire services contributed to this article.

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