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Unrest in West Bank, Gaza over jobs, police

Monday, June 6, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinians angered with their government's failure to provide security jobs or seeking revenge for past killings have engaged in armed confrontations that are calling into question Mahmoud Abbas' ability to pacify his territories. On Sunday in Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank, gunmen firing in the air took over three government buildings. On Saturday in Gaza, gunmen briefly abducted a Palestinian diplomat. On Friday in Nablus, gunmen killed an official, charging that he ordered the killing of a suspected collaborator 15 years ago.

At the beginning of more than four years of conflict, the Israeli military targeted Palestinian security forces, charging that they were involved in the violence. The result: Palestinian police lost control of the streets, and the vacuum was filled by armed gangs of militants who split their time between attacking Israelis and controlling the streets, often with strong-arm tactics.

Since Abbas took office as Palestinian leader in January, he has pledged to reform overlapping and competing security services and restore law and order -- so far with few results. Along with a truce that significantly reduced Israeli-Palestinian violence since February, government reform is Abbas' main test, with parliamentary elections approaching.

On Saturday, Abbas announced that the elections would be postponed indefinitely, provoking anger from the militant group Hamas, which is contesting the parliamentary race for the first time. The Islamic group is hoping to cash in on voter discontent with 10 years of corrupt and inefficient government by Fatah, the party of Abbas and the late Yasser Arafat.

In addition to the Israeli conflict, Palestinians are concerned about their personal safety and the ineffectiveness of their government, according to recent polls. Events over the weekend have shown that Abbas has a long way to go toward restoring order on the streets.

Nablus, a militant stronghold, has been hit especially hard by vigilante violence in recent years. During the conflict with Israel, local groups of gunmen, acting with considerable autonomy, have become increasingly powerful, often using their weapons to settle personal scores.

On Sunday, Palestinian gunmen firing in the air briefly took over three government buildings, demanding jobs in the security services.

The armed men ordered employees in the three buildings to leave. The gunmen disappeared before police arrived. One officer was injured in the leg by a stray bullet.

Top Fatah officials in Nablus on Sunday demanded the death penalty for the killers of a regional Fatah chief, Ali Farraj, victim of an apparent revenge slaying last week.

Farraj, 45, and his 36-year-old brother, Hussam, were driving in the nearby village of Qabalan on Friday when a fuel truck rammed their car, witnesses said. Gunmen then emerged from the truck and fired on the Farraj brothers, already gravely wounded, to make sure they were dead.

Three of the five assailants were in custody Sunday, said Nablus Gov. Mahmoud Alul. The five suspects are brothers. They apparently targeted Ali Farraj on suspicion he ordered the killing of their father, an alleged informer for Israel, in 1991.

Yousef Harb, a Fatah spokesman in Nablus, said the Farraj family is refusing to bury the bodies until the assailants have been tried. Burial must be quick under Islamic custom and delaying it is seen as an extreme step. Harb said Fatah has sent a letter to Abbas, demanding the killers be tried and executed.

Alul said the suspects in custody were under interrogation, and he expected their trial to begin soon.


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