Palestinians fear that their communities may be facing a return to anarchy and falatan amni, or "security chaos."
Recent incidents are yet another sign of the Palestinian Authority's failure to enforce law and order, especially in refugee camps such as Balata (near Nablus) Qalandya (near Ramallah) and the Jenin refugee camp.
Moreover, these incidents are an indication of mounting tensions among rival camps inside Fatah and between the refugees and the Palestinians living in the big cities surrounding the camps.
These camps, which are hotbeds for gunmen and terror groups, have long been off-limits to the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces. Tens of thousands of Palestinians live in these three major refugee camps in the West Bank. Although the refugee camps there located in areas controlled by the PA, the Palestinian security forces do their best to steer clear of them. Attempts by Palestinian security forces to arrest camp residents wanted for various crimes have often resulted in armed confrontations.
Disgruntled members of PA President Mahmoud Abbas's ruling Fatah faction are mostly responsible for the anarchy and "security chaos." Many of the Fatah members once belonged to Fatah's armed wing, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which was officially dismantled several years ago under pressure from Israel and the international community, specifically the Americans and Europeans, the biggest funders of the Palestinian Authority.
These men regularly accuse the PA leadership of turning its back on them and ignoring their demand for jobs and money. A quick chat with young Palestinians, including Fatah members, in any refugee camp in the West Bank will reveal a driving sense of betrayal. And no, they are not afraid of speaking out against President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in front of any stranger. In these camps, the PA seems as much the enemy as Israel. They speak of the PA as a corrupt and incompetent body that is managed by "mafia leaders." Others see the Palestinian Authority is a pawn in the hands of Israel and the US. More importantly, many of the camp activists believe that it is only a matter of time before Palestinians launch an intifada against the PA.
Make no mistake: these individuals have no love for Israel. Not a single one is prepared to relinquish the "right of return" to Israel, even if and when a Palestinian state is established supposedly within the pre-1967 lines. And many are fully in favor of an "armed struggle" against Israel.
But hostility towards the Palestinian Authority seems to have reached unprecedented heights among refugee camp residents. The feeling is that the PA leadership has done virtually nothing to improve their living conditions and that the real money is going to big cities such as Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron.
"The Palestinian Authority is controlled by thieves who do not care about us," complained Hassan Abu Ayyash, a young man who describes himself as a "Fatah activist" from the Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah.
"They are getting hundreds of millions of dollars from the international community and distributing them among themselves and their sons. Look at all the big buildings and fancy restaurants and bars in Ramallah. Where do they get all the money to purchase expensive cars?"
The camp residents are not even afraid to vent their anger against senior representatives of the Palestinian Authority.
Earlier this week, unidentified gunmen intercepted the car of the Palestinian Authority Minister for Social Welfare, Ibrahim Al Shaer, as it was making its way from Ramallah to Jerusalem. When the car reached the Qalandya refugee camp, on the Ramallah-Jerusalem highway, the gunmen stopped it and forced the driver out. The gunmen, who are believed to be members of Fatah, fled with the car. Hours later, the PA security forces managed to recover the minister's stolen vehicle. Palestinians described the carjacking as a severe blow to the Palestinian Authority's "prestige."
In an incident that reflects similar sentiments, unidentified gunmen opened fire at a Palestinian Authority police station in the village of Al Yamoun in the northern West Bank. Again, the suspects are believed to be disgruntled Fatah activists. Residents of Jenin said that the shooting reflected the growing state of "security chaos" in the area and the weakness of the PA in tackling the problem. The attack was the second of its kind against the same police station in recent months.
In April of this year, a fierce gun battle erupted between Palestinian Authority security officers and members of the Jaradat clan in the refugee camp of Jenin. The clash started during an attempt to arrest a clan member. Two people were wounded.
Last month, masked gunmen from one of the refugee camps stole a Palestinian police car in broad daylight from the center of Ramallah. The stolen car was returned to the police hours later, but no one was arrested because that would have stirred more trouble for the Palestinian Authority and resulted in a violent confrontation with the camp residents.
Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, exemplifies the growing West Bank anarchy. The city is surrounded by a number of refugee camps that are effectively controlled by dozens of Fatah gangs that have long been terrorizing the city's wealthy clans and leading figures.
But there are also instances where it seems that rival Fatah leaders hire the unruly gunmen from the refugee camps to settle scores among themselves. Earlier this month, for example, gunmen opened fire at the home of Ghassan Shaka'a, the former mayor of Nablus and a senior PLO and Fatah official. No one was hurt in the attack, which was apparently only aimed at sending Shaka'a a warning message.
Shaka'a later announced that the attack on his home was in the framework of "internal rivalries" among the top brass of the Fatah leadership. He said he believed that the attack was aimed at dissuading him from running again for mayor of Nablus. Expressing his deep frustration with the lawlessness in his city, Shaka'a said that the "security situation in the (Hamas-controlled) Gaza Strip was better than that in the West Bank." His last remark is seen as being a direct criticism of the Palestinian Authority for failing to rein in the gunmen from the refugee camps.
According to some of Mahmoud Abbas's top aides, the scenes of lawlessness are far from spontaneous. Rather, they say, they are being orchestrated by ousted Fatah operative Mohamed Dahlan, who is based in the United Arab Emirates. The aides claim that Dahlan has been funding many Fatah gangs in the West Bank refugee camps, as part of an effort to buy loyalty and establish bases of power for himself.
Dahlan, they argue, is eager to succeed President Abbas. Thus he has been working hard to undermine the Palestinian Authority and sow anarchy and dissent in the West Bank. He wants to show that Abbas is losing control and that only a "powerful" figure such as Dahlan would be able to restore law and order. Dahlan, for his part, has strongly denied the allegations.
The return of anarchy to the streets of West Bank cities and refugee camps is a bad omen for President Abbas and his regime. It's also a natural result of the failure of the Palestinian Authority over the past two decades to offer the residents of the refugee camps any realistic hope for a better life.
The PA, like most Arab countries, has spent years upon years lying to the camp residents, telling them that they should remain in their misery because one day they will return to their families' former homes inside Israel. Adding to this extraordinarily extended effort of deceit, the Palestinian Authority has marginalized the refugee camp residents, cutting them out of any process of state-building. It appears that the residents have had enough. Abbas's talk of establishing an independent Palestinian state is hard to reconcile with the "security chaos" in the territories under his control. Hamas, of course, is cheering on the sidelines as it watches the PA-controlled territories going to hell.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.