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In West Bank refugee camps, Palestinians arm up for post-Abbas power struggle

Tensions surface after death of prominent anti-PA activist who Ramallah claims was working for exiled Abbas rival Dahlan; elections could be held next year for 1st time since 2005

Palestinian Authority security forces in balaclavas stand by an armored vehicle at the entrance to Balata camp, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 15, 2020.  (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)
Palestinian Authority security forces in balaclavas stand by an armored vehicle at the entrance to Balata camp, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 15, 2020. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

In Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, some residents are preparing weapons for a potential power struggle when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas finally leaves the stage.

Abbas, 85, leader of the dominant Fatah movement and of the Palestinian Authority, has promised legislative and presidential elections in 2021, for the first time in more than 16 years.

Rivals are already seeking to build up a power base.

In Balata camp, outside the city of Nablus, walls are plastered with posters picturing Hatem Abu Rizq, regarded as a “martyr” of Palestinian infighting.

On October 31, Palestinian media reported one dead and others wounded in Balata, where 30,000 people are crammed into one quarter of a square kilometer (one tenth of a square mile).

This time, the casualties were not the result of a clash with Israeli forces, although Abu Rizq spent almost 10 years in Israeli jails for his part in the Palestinian Second Intifada uprising of 2000 to 2005, which saw on onslaught of suicide bombings and other terror attacks directed against Israeli citizens.

At the age of 35, he died in the eruption of intra-Palestinian violence in October. Palestinian officials said he was killed by the premature explosion of a bomb he was about to detonate.

“But in truth, he was killed by shots from the Palestinian Authority,” says his mother, Um Hatem Abu Rizq, in the family’s tiny apartment in a dilapidated concrete building.

The mother of Hatem Abu Rizq, who was killed in October, cries in front of a poster picturing her son in the Balata camp, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 15, 2020. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

“He was looking to fight corruption within the Palestinian administration, that’s why they didn’t like him,” she weeps, kissing a giant poster of her son.

Was he working for exiled former Fatah Gaza security chief Mohammad Dahlan, as alleged by PA officials?

“If Hatem were with Dahlan, we would not live in such an apartment,” said his mother, whose two other sons are in hiding, fearing for their lives.

Dahlan’s shadow?

In the West Bank, Dahlan’s name comes up repeatedly in connection with the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, announced in August and signed in Washington in September.

He fell into disgrace in Fatah after his security forces in Gaza were routed by the Hamas terror group in 2007. Four years later, he was kicked off Fatah’s central committee on charges of “subversion.” He went into exile in Abu Dhabi, where he became an adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and a key player in the Israel normalization accord bitterly opposed by the PA.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas flashes the V-sign as Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan looks on after their meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah, December 18, 2006. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer/File)

Following the announcement of the UAE’s pact with the Jewish state, Palestinians in the West Bank publicly trampled posters of “traitor” Dahlan. But his name has been mentioned as a possible contender for a “successor” to the 85-year-old Abbas, who has headed the Palestinian Authority since 2005 after the 2004 death of its leader Yasser Arafat.

Inside the Palestinian political establishment, however, the post-Abbas future is a taboo subject.

“In this region, we don’t like to talk about life after death,” an influential Fatah figure said recently.

The PA’s governor of Nablus, Ibrahim Ramadan, has no doubt about Abu Rizq’s loyalties.

“Hatem Abu Rizq was with Dahlan,” he told AFP, adding that since his death, 14 members of the government security forces have been wounded in attacks in Balata. “These people only understand the language of force and need to understand that we are strong.”

A Palestinian woman stands against a wall plastered with posters picturing “martyrs,” at a market in the Balata camp, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 15, 2020. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

Anti-Abbas uprising?

At the entrance to Balata camp, Palestinian security personnel in balaclavas stand by an armored vehicle, sipping coffee, while their sniper colleagues keep watch from the rooftops.

“Dahlan gives money to unemployed youth to throw stones and Molotov cocktails at Palestinian forces,” senior PA officer General Wael Shitawi told AFP angrily in his apartment ringed by surveillance cameras. “Their aim is to create unrest and show that the Palestinian Authority does not control the camps. They want to instigate a revolution from the camps, then say that Dahlan must come back to solve the problem.”

Dahlan sympathizer and Fatah member Dimitri Diliani says the PA sees the hand of Dahlan in what is simply the anger of descendants of refugees who feel downtrodden and ignored.

“This is Dahlanphobia, a phobia from which the PA is suffering,” he said. “This is a pandemic worse than COVID-19. It is a reaction to political harassment that has been carried out by the Palestinian Authority.”

A building that was set on fire during clashes in the Balata camp, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 15, 2020. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

‘Fertile soil’

The United Nations envoy for the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, told AFP he was “deeply concerned” about growing tensions between residents of Balata camp and the PA security forces, and called for “all parties to show restraint.”

Emad Zaki, who heads a committee that oversees services for camp residents, said people wanted change.

“In Balata, it is not that people like Dahlan, but they are looking for an alternative to improve their lot… it is fertile ground.”

He said the dispute has sparked an influx of weapons into the camp outpacing that of the Second Intifada of 20 years ago.

“There are more weapons today in Balata than during the Second Intifada,” he said. “There are rocket launchers, Kalashnikovs and M16 [assault rifles].”

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