West Bank prisoners killed as mob storms courtroom

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The rising internal tensions among the Palestinians of the West Bank exploded into the open yesterday when a large mob, led by members of the security forces, smashed their way into a military court and murdered three defendants.

The victims, two of them teenagers, had been convicted of the killing of a Palestinian security officer when they were shot dead in the court's lavatories, where they had been hidden by police. The dead men had been disguised in uniforms in a vain bid to ensure their safety.

In scenes that were shocking, even grotesque, by the stand-ards of this conflict zone, the gunmen pumped dozens of bullets into them before dragging their corpses on to the streets while shooting in the air in triumph.

The killings, in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, were cited by Palestinian human rights activists as further proof of the severe shortcomings of the Palestinian legal system, which were evident before the start of the current uprising.

They are also likely to be used as further evidence of the lack of control of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority over an increasingly chaotic and fractured society.

Hundreds of people, some wielding hammers and bars, stormed the court after hearing that it had commuted death sentences against two of the men. Witnesses said that the mob was led by several dozen members of the Palestinian security services or of the mainstream Fatah movement.

The hearing, a military tribunal, was being held in the local chamber of commerce, as court and security buildings had been bombed by the Israeli armed forces.

The crowd's fury was rooted in a blood feud within one Palestinian clan. But it also reflects the hatred among Palestinians for Israel's network of collaborators in the occupied territories, which is widely accused of providing information that has led to scores of assassinations during the intifada.

The feud began 14 years ago when Osama Qmeil, a Fatah activist, started killing fellow Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. A member of Fatah's Black Panther militia, he became a hero on the West Bank after killing six alleged collaborators, all from his own clan, within two years. After the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, he secured a job in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Preventive Security Services.

Last week, he was murdered, after being lured by his killers to a local rubbish dump. Three members of his clan – Khaled Nasir, 17, Jihad Abu Khamira, 17 and Mahmoud Haniti, 39 – were charged with killing him, and found guilty in the early hours yesterday by a military tribunal.

They told the judge they killed Mr Qmeil as revenge for the death of members of the clan. By mid-morning, the three defendants were back in court for sentencing. The judge sentenced the two teenagers to death, but immediately commuted it to 15 years of hard labour. Infuriated by what they saw as leniency, the mob attacked.

"This proves the lack of a working judiciary in areas under the Palestinian Authority," said Bassem Eid, of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, "I don't think the PA has any control right now, and the incident in Jenin proves that."

It is not the only recent example of what the Palestinians call "fitna" – an Arabic term for infighting – which they widely attribute to the pressures of living under an Israeli military siege.

A week ago a Christian Palestinian stabbed to death a Muslim in a road-rage argument that erupted while they were waiting in a traffic jam caused by an Israeli checkpoint outside Ramallah.

Muslims went on a vengeful rampage, damaging and setting fires to shops belonging to the killer's family.

The unrest – only a few miles from Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters where he is trapped by Israeli tanks – prompted local community leaders to publish a newspaper announcement, complaining that there was no law and order, and an absence of security. It came two months after a statement by 32 Palestinian intellectuals accusing Israel of driving a wedge between Palestinians, and calling for internal reforms.

The statement accused Israel of systematically destroying Palestinian aspirations to build a state, and listed a long list of internal problems, many of which predate the intifada. These included "the paralysis of large number of official institutions", the "lack of sovereignty of the law", the "need to revive the independent judiciary" and "the need to confront the misuse of power, negligence, bad administration, and misuse of public funds".