Balata suffers amid Palestinian power games

Balata suffers amid Palestinian power games
Feature: Palestinian security forces sweep West Bank refugee camp, saying they are searching for armed drug dealers. But for those inside, the reality is much different.
5 min read
10 February, 2015
Palestinian security forces have staged several raids on refugee camps [AFP]

Over the past week, an atmosphere reminiscent of the second intifada has returned to the Balata refugee camp. This time, however, it is not because of the actions of Israeli troops - it is the Palestinian security apparatus that residents say are stirring up trouble.

Balata, the largest refugee camp in the occupied West Bank and home to 23,000 Palestinian refugees, is paralysed as gunmen clash with Palestinian security forces. Schools and public institutions are closed and there are fears armed men will close the entrances to outsiders. 

The Palestinian Authority denies there is a "crackdown" underway, and blames a small band of armed drug dealers inside the camp for the recent violence.

However, the air of hostility inside the camp, near Nablus, reflects the hostility against the authority. Many are tired of the recession, administrative and financial corruption, and bullying by Palestinian security services.

During recent clashes, Palestinian security forces used a mounted machine gun to shoot at the camp's entrance, causing significant damage to nearby buildings.

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Akram al-Rajoub is the governor of Nablus, and is leading the security campaign in Balata. "The camp is being wrestled away from a group of gunmen who are shooting indiscriminately at institutions and at citizens, in addition to dealing drugs," he told al-Araby

There are between ten and 20 "wanted" people in the camp, he said. "It is clear that the security situation in Balata requires the use of planned and expert force to deal with them," he said.

Leaders in the camp rejected his comments. 

Jamal al-Tirawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said drugs had become a "pretext" to justify the campaign in the camp.

"Many of those who are wanted don't even know that they are wanted - and the camp, with all its bodies and frameworks, has never received a list of those who are wanted, according to what the governor is saying," he said.

Local sources told al-Araby that the majority of those wanted are from Fatah for possessing illegal weapons. It is those weapons, and their proliferation in the refugee camps of the West Bank, that the PA is targeting, the sources said.

     Why don't we see the authority's machine guns come out when the occupying forces invade Nablus and the camps?

Balata's administrator, Mohammed al-Musaimi, said he wanted to see indictments against those wanted by police, and said anyone arrested should not be held in custody without a clear charge.

Israeli troops have launched several operations in Balata camp, ostensibly searching for illicit weaponry. The most recent, dubbed "cleaning the stables", resulted in the confiscation of a cache of weapons and numerous arrests.

The Palestinian security apparatus has carried out similar campaigns. The conflict is now between the PA and Palestinian gunmen.

"Why don't we see these weapons come out against the Israeli occupying forces when they raid the camps?" asked the Nablus governor. "Why is it we only see them when the Palestinian Authority wants to protect the regime by arresting those who are wanted?"

One gunman asked the same of the governor. "Why don't we see the authority's machine guns come out when the occupying forces invade Nablus and the camps, and why does the authority brandish its weapons in front of us?"

Another said Palestinian authorities go after "anyone with a weapon, while the spies of the occupation are allowed to go free".

Tawfiq al-Tirawi, understood to be one of the wanted men, said he had actually been prevented by Palestinian security forces from stopping drug dealers in the camps.

"We are committed to a truce with the occupation based on orders from President Mahmoud Abbas," said the 27-year-old. "We tried to confront some of the drug dealers but the security apparatus stood in our way. The former governor previously coordinated with Fatah to enter the camp and arrest the drug dealers. But the present governor is casting accusations at random and storming the camp by force in order to weaken it."

Security sweeps

The Balata raids are not the first by Palestinian security forces inside refugee camps. In 2013 Jenin was raided on the pretext of arresting drug dealers and car thieves. The first target, however, was the house of Islamic Jihad leader Bassam al-Saadi, and homes belonging to a number of activists and prisoners affiliated to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Not one of those arrested was a car thief or a drug dealer and, a short time after the camp was stormed, the governor of Jenin, Talal Dweikat, was removed from his post.

Schools in Balata have been temporarily closed [Getty]

Similarly, security raids continued in the Qalandiya refugee camp near Ramallah, as well as in al-Faria, Askar and Balata.

In Ramadan 2012, Palestinian security forces arrested dozens of people and interrogated them over a number of weeks in al-Dhahiriyya prison in Hebron. Many of those arrested said they had been tortured.

And many in Balata complain of "double standards", saying the PA always deals with its population with suspicion and does nothing to improve their living standards and conditions. The PA sees refugees' demands for the right of return as a hindrance to a future political settlement with Israel, say analysts.

The father of one of the wanted men accused the Palestinian security services of "gross double standards", saying his son was in custody for 65 days for firing celebratory shots in the air when his friend was released by Israel.

Another man, he said, shot someone in Nablus, and was released after only four days.

Another claim is that Abbas is targeting the camp due to its support for the expelled Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan, currently on trial in absentia on charges of corruption and the misuse of $17m of funds. Websites affiliated to the PA published an anonymous statement from one of the wanted men in Balata, saying he and his group "support Dahlan".

One of the camp's residents, Ibtisam Jabir, told al-Araby residents had become tired of officials' promises.

"When they want to win the camp's electoral votes, they begin their pilgrimage here," said Jabir. "We are fed up of being a human reservoir for martyrs, wounded people and prisoners. When we do not accept the governor, a military campaign is launched against us based on flimsy pretexts.

"Ever since the end of the intifada, the authority has launched military campaigns on Palestinian refugee camps, yet we never once hear about an economic campaign or a campaign against unemployment."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.