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West Bandk Town Confronts Difficult Transfer to PLO

By Mary Curtius
Los Angeles Times
NABLUS, israeli-occupied west bank

No tougher challenge awaits Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank than this ancient, violent city, once a bastion of armed resistance to Israel's military occupation, now a jungle of street gangs and lawlessness.

On Monday night, the last Israeli troops will pull out of Nablus and officially hand it over to the Palestinian police. Leader of the "intifada" against Israeli rule that erupted in the West Bank in 1987 and paved the way for Israel's negotiations with Arafat, Nablus is both a prize and a curse for the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman.

Prize, because some of the West Bank's wealthiest and most powerful families live here. They have traditionally provided much of the merchant class and political leadership of the Palestinian people. They are likely to be important builders of the future Palestinian state.

Curse, because the merchant class went into eclipse during the intifada, replaced by the likes of Ahmad Tabouk, intifada hero turned street vigilante, a man who specializes in killing and maiming Palestinians.

Tabouk, leader of the armed militia group Fatah Hawks, and men like him have been ruling Nablus for months. All of Nablus is waiting to see how Arafat will handle Tabouk, his followers and the eight other armed militias prowling Nablus.

"The first step for the authorities is to arrest all the people making problems," said Amin Makboul, who belongs to Fatah, the largest PLO faction, and is a Fatah Higher Committee member for the northern West Bank. "It is what the people expect."

Well, not all the people.

Tabouk has gained almost legendary stature among the poor of the Casbah, his home turf. They regard him as a Robin Hood, a poor man brave enough to attack even members of wealthy and powerful Nablus families if he believes them guilty of collaborating with the Israelis, drug dealing or committing "moral" offenses.

But to the merchant classes and the old families, Tabouk embodies the breakdown of Palestinian society. He is the sad and dangerous result, Palestinians who fear him say, of decades of military occupation and years of intifada, which is Arabic for the uprising against Israel.

Thousands of young men like Tabouk who were heroes during the intifada now pose a threat to the society that Arafat is trying to rebuild. They are unemployed, uneducated and frustrated by their sudden marginalization. Re-integrating them into Palestinian society may be Arafat's most difficult task.

Tabouk and the Fatah Hawks have enthusiastically filled the power vacuum that grew after Israel and the PLO signed their framework peace accord in September 1993.

In Nablus, Israeli soldiers disappeared first from the Casbah, then from most of the city's streets. There was no police force, no authority to impose law and order.

The Hawks began to stalk alleged miscreants through the city's streets.

Insisting that they were acting in the name of Arafat, they settled squabbles with the other militias by engaging in running street battles. But they came to specialize in gunning men down in broad daylight.

They shoot lesser offenders - drug users or men accused of committing "moral" crimes - in the legs. They kill people who they believe have provided the Israeli army with information that has led to the death of wanted Palestinians.

"Because we have no Palestinian judicial system, there's a lack of security," Tabouk said in an interview. "There is no law, there is no order. So we are the balance that brings law and order and justice. We are the judge and we are the jury."

Tabouk said he is willing to relinquish that role as soon as the governing Palestinian Authority arrives here with its 1,200-strong security force.

In fact, he is looking forward to joining that force, he said.

"When the sulta comes," he said, referring to the Palestinian Authority, "there will be law here. It won't be chaos, like today. We will be on the side of the sulta."

Arafat's dilemma is whether to incorporate men like Tabouk into his security force - or to jail them.

In the city of Janin, where the Palestinian Authority took control last month, it did both. It arrested and jailed for nine-year prison terms two Black Panthers, another armed group, for kidnapping two Israeli border police officers who were subsequently released unharmed.

The authority then accepted the "surrender" of about 90 Panthers, who turned in their weapons and were accepted as police cadets.