Peace brings no respite to West Bank

A local gang leader is adding to the difficulties of life under Israeli occupation, writes Patrick Cockburn in Nablus
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Few Palestinians are travelling between Jerusalem and the West Bank this weekend because the Israeli army has closed off movement between Israel and the occupied territories. Ironically, as Palestinian and Israeli leaders celebrate their agreement in Washington to secure Israeli withdrawal, the occupation is weighing more heavily than ever on the Palestinians of the West Bank.

The repeated bans on Palestinian workers entering Israel are leading to a sharp decline in the standard of living, which may explain why there is little enthusiasm among West Bankers for the peace accord.

Officially the reason for the closure, which will continue until tomorrow, is to prevent suicide bombers entering Israel. But the shared taxis going between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the large Palestinian town 10 miles to the north, have been simply driving around the main Israeli checkpoint at al-Ram.

"The closure is a way of calming the Israeli public," Marwan Darwish, a Palestinian specialist on Israeli politics based in Nablus, said. He argues it is also part of Israel's long-term policy of separating Israelis from Palestinians. As a result 36 per cent of West Bankers say their economic situation has got worse since the first stage of autonomy was granted last year and only 9 per cent say it has improved.

People in Nablus are worried about their economic future, but something else is concerning them a great deal more. Sa'id Kan'an, director of the Centre for Palestinian Studies, a political think-tank based in the city, said: "There is a political vacuum here." The Israelis are preparing to withdraw from this city of 120,000 next February and the Palestinian Authority has not taken over.

What worries Mr Kan'an is that in Nablus the vacuum has been filled by a violent gunmen called Ahmed Tabouq backed by a hundred followers. Mr Kan'an said: "Tabouq is now the real ruler of Nablus." Mr Tabouq says he is a loyal follower of Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, but since March, Mr Kan'an said, he has shot 15 people.

Mr Tabouq is based in the kasbah, the old market area of Nablus, and his speciality is knee-capping, often of people accused of sexual offences. Another resident of Nablus, who asked not to be named, blamed him for calling repeated strikes and demonstrations which nobody wanted, saying: "The banks and the university all have to close. They can't say no or they will be shot."

The trouble started last March when Mr Tabouq and other prisoners were released from an Israeli prison. Although they were penniless, somebody paid them thousands of dollars to buy arms and ammunition. Mr Kan'an says Mr Tabouq's gang organised a series of demonstrations, in which three protesters were killed by the Israelis, claiming that these were to help Mr Arafat. "They didn't even know why they were throwing stones," Mr Kan'an said.

A cynical explanation, accepted by many people in Nablus about why their city has descended into anarchy, is that both Mr Arafat and the Israelis have no interest in stopping it. One source claimed: "Arafat is the brain behind Tabouq. He pays his men. The breakdown in order discredits the local leadership here in Nablus. It will allow Arafat to return next year as the Messiah who will restore peace. The Israelis do nothing to stop Tabouq because they want to show us Palestinians that we can live in worse times than under the occupation."

Mr Arafat's involvement is not proved. But there is no doubt he is already laying plans to ensure that when he returns to the West Bank next year he will rapidly gain political control. He will face opposition from well- established families, the local leadership of his own Fatah organisation, and pro-Jordanian elements. Letting Mr Tabouq have free range in Nablus may be Mr Arafat's opening move in this battle.

There is little doubt that he will win. Mr Arafat is a past-master in Palestinian faction fighting. But the brief supremacy of Mr Tabouq and his gunmen explains why few people in Nablus yesterday were talking about the signing ceremony in Washington.