Drama in West Bank city of Jenin shows cracks in Palestinian nation-building project


For some observers, the story of Jenin has become a sort of parable illustrating the inevitable cracks in the Palestinian nation-building project amid the utter absence of a peace process that could end the Israeli occupation. (Saif Dahlah/AFP/Getty Images)

A high drama unfolding recently in the jacaranda-draped hills of this city features some of its most prominent characters: a crime-fighting governor who perished as he hunted his attackers and a famed ex-militant swept up in an ensuing crackdown. But uncomfortably for Palestinian officials, the cast also appears to include senior members of the elite Palestinian security forces, who are now suspected of acting on the wrong side of the law.

Jenin, a smoldering hub of violence and suicide bombers during the second Palestinian intifada, is now lauded as a beacon of Palestinian-imposed law and order. Longtime governor Qaddoura Mousa was a symbol of that, and so his death early this month — by heart attack as he searched for gunmen who had fired on his house hours before — was viewed by many here as an assassination.

Yet among the dozens since arrested are several security officers, including two battalion commanders of the U.S.-trained Palestinian special forces and a sergeant suspected of being the triggerman, according to Palestinian officials with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing. All the arrested men had clan-based ties to gangsters who targeted the governor to avenge the police killing of a man from a nearby village, the officials said.

Jenin today remains placid, almost sleepy. But for some observers, the story has become a sort of parable illustrating the inevitable cracks in the Palestinian nation-building project amid the utter absence of a peace process that could end the Israeli occupation. From this perspective, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank risk losing faith that their efforts will help lead to a state, and factions of the dominant Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, are beginning to turn on each other.

“Those who targeted my father didn’t target him personally,” said Mousa’s son, Mousa Qaddoura, 30. “They targeted Abu Mazen’s vision and the entire Palestinian Authority project.”

‘Unrest’ in security services

The Jenin events have alarmed the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, where officials are divided on the strategy of building state institutions as a step toward nationhood, and even defenders of the idea say its credibility has a limited shelf life.

“The calm and stability that you achieve in the occupied territories cannot be maintained for a long period of time without any sort of political progress toward a final agreement,” said Qais Abdul-Karim, a Palestinian lawmaker who said he never supported the state-building project. Today, he said, “there is a lot of unrest in the security services.”

The centerpiece of the project was security reform, which has been backed by a multimillion-dollar U.S. training program since 2005. Palestinian security forces are widely credited with calming the West Bank, though they also face criticism for cooperating with the Israeli military. But Mousa, 60, believed that law and order would strengthen the Palestinians’ negotiating hand, his son recalled — he liked to argue that they had a better chance of beating the Israelis if they approached the conflict as a chess game rather than a boxing match.

As governor of Jenin district for eight years, Mousa oversaw the city’s pacification and forged a partnership with leaders in the Israeli community of Gilboa, just across the nearby boundary, to enliven Jenin’s economy. Business picked up, many militants put their guns down and some joined the security services.

Mousa was a regular visitor to the Jenin refugee camp, which a decade ago was a seat of the Palestinian insurgency. It is there that Zakaria Zbeida, a legendary former leader of Fatah’s mostly defunct armed wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, still holds sway even after having renounced violence. And it is there that a project Zbeida backed, the Freedom Theater, stands as a creative outlet for Palestinian youths.

The camp’s relative tranquility was rocked last year when masked gunmen killed the theater’s Israeli-Arab director, Juliano Mer Khamis, in a crime that remains unsolved. An increase in gang-style violence followed, prompting the United Nations to temporarily suspend its activities in Jenin in August.

A nighttime attack

Palestinian authorities arrested Zbeida this month in connection with the attack on Mousa’s house. Atta Abu Irmaila, a Fatah leader in Jenin, said the gun used in the shooting was found in Zbeida’s possession, something Zbeida’s relatives and friends fervently denied on a recent afternoon. They grumbled that the Palestinian Authority has become a subcontractor to Israel, one eager to display its control to the world by selling out the people it once lionized as freedom fighters.

“For them, he’s not needed. He’s expired,” Nabeel al-Raee, the theater’s artistic director, said of Zbeida, his roommate. “Twenty years of negotiations. This is what we have achieved?”

Palestinian officials said the investigation into the attack on Mousa’s house is ongoing, but they traced its origins to the village of Bir al-Basha, where last month Palestinian police fatally shot a suspect they said fired on them.

Relatives, part of the area’s large Turkman clan, wanted revenge, and Mousa thought he had talked them out of it, Abu Irmaila said. But a senior security commander from the same clan, identified as Mohammad al-Zalafi, stoked their rage and “masterminded” a plan that involved several security officers and civilians, including Zbeida, said Abu Irmaila, whose account was corroborated by other Palestinian officials.

After midnight one day in early May, gunshots pierced the sunroom atop Mousa’s home, his son said. Mousa, enraged, got in his car in search of the assailants. Mid-quest, he stopped at a clinic, where he died of a heart attack.

Striving for safety

In interviews, several Palestinian officials played down the incident as one of simple clan warfare. The officers involved, they said, were bad apples linked to gunrunning and other criminal activities — albeit some who had risen to senior positions and who were willing to attack their own boss.

“These are individual provocations . . . it is not a phenomenon, and it has no political meaning,” said Interior Minister Said Abu Ali.

Abu Ali insisted that the security forces’ morale is strong, though he expressed frustration that the Israeli military requires them to seek permission to operate in many West Bank Palestinian towns and carries out raids in cities nominally controlled by the Palestinian Authority, such as Jenin.

The official reaction to the shooting was swift, and there is no palpable sense of unrest on Jenin’s quiet streets. At a downtown restaurant, manager Othman Inab said safety, which not long ago seemed a fantasy, is now the city’s best attribute.

His concern is that the other part of Jenin’s version of the Palestinian statehood project, a flourishing economy, has stumbled. Mousa helped open the nearby crossing into Israel, which has allowed Arab Israelis to shop and dine in Jenin but within limited hours. A joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial zone has not taken off.

Nationhood, Inab said, seems far off, and at this point he simply wishes for a permit allowing him to work in Israel.

“If the crossing was open, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Talal Dweikat, the newly appointed Jenin governor, said unemployment and poverty are major concerns. But he vowed that the city would remain a model of safety.

“We are very aware of the consequences of security disorder against our national project,” Dweikat said. “We provide security for ourselves, not for anyone else.”

Special correspondents Sufian Taha in Jenin and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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