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As Fatah meets, a time bomb ticks in Palestinian camps

Fatah's political divisions are fuelling an explosive mix of unemployment and lack of opportunity in the camps of the West Bank
Hatem Abu Rezeq, 31, who lives in the Balata refugee camp, shows bullet holes left by the Palestinian forces overnight (Elia Ghorbiah/MEE)

The Palestinian camps are on edge. Often they are subject to raids and arrests by the Palestinian Authority (PA), as its forces try to locate those it accuses of murder, arms smuggling and drug trafficking.

But those clashes have carried more political weight this year, as Fatah’s seventh conference, which began in Ramallah on Tuesday, decides the future direction of the organisation.

'We are the pulse of the revolution and the sons of Fatah, not the sons of Dahlan or Mahmoud Abbas'

- Mohammad Abu Draa, resident of Balata

Fatah has been riddled with internal division since its last conference in 2009, with talk of the need for a successor to President Mahmoud Abbas, 81, although he not yet signalled he is ready to step down.

Among those vying for power are Mohammad Dahlan, the former leader of Fatah and a bitter rival of Abbas, who has been exiled from Gaza and the West Bank. Dahlan’s supporters fear that this week’s conference will see his allies further removed from key positions.

Mohammad Dahlan, the former leader of Fatah, is a bitter rival of Mahmoud Abbas (AFP)
That hostility has rippled across the camps like rings of tension during the past few months. In October, armed confrontation between PA forces and young Palestinians rocked the Balata refugee camp in Nablus, the Amari refugee camp in Ramallah and the Jenin refugee camp.

The PA says it is enforcing the law and prosecuting criminals. But others allege they are being targeted for political motives, as opposing factions within Fatah seek to arms themselves.

“We are the pulse of the revolution and the sons of Fatah,” said Mohammad Abu Draa, 30, a resident of Balata who is wanted by the Palestinian Authority, “not the sons of Dahlan or Mahmoud Abbas.”

Balata is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, home to at least 27,500 registered refugees. It takes about five minutes walking through the narrow alleyways and negotiating the cramped corners to reach the house where seven men wanted by the PA were still asleep after a restless night, fearful of night raids by the Israeli army and Palestinian security forces.

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Hatem Abu Rezeq, 31, had only just awoken. He came out, holding a cup of tea and his phone, to show us the bullet holes in the wall that the Palestinian forces had left the night before.

The spark behind the discontent in the camp was, he said, rampant unemployment among the young.
“The unemployment rate is more than 60 percent, which drives the young to commit offences. What do you expect?”

Palestinians walk in and out of a UN-run school in the West Bank Balata refugee camp on the first day of the new school year (AFP)
Yes, he accepted, there were some young people who had committed crimes. But when it came to turning themselves in, they discovered that they were to be sent to Jericho. “They refused and then they vanished.”

Alleged abuses at the Palestinian Authority’s central prison in Jericho have long been documented by human rights organisations. According to Abu Riziq, being sent there equates with torture – and possibly not coming out again.

“The people of Balata have rebelled against the idea of surrendering to the authorities,” he added. “Each year they [the PA] mount a campaign and arrest us, then send us from one investigation centre to another. 
“The last stop is the prison, for two, three, four months, you get tortured and crucified. You can’t blame anyone for not turning themselves in. Anyone who enters prison knows that he won’t be out for four or five months.”

READ: Is Fatah conference the start of change or the deepening of a crisis? 

Mohammad Abu Draa, 30, who is also wanted by the Palestinian Authority, denied that he supported Dahlan. “They claim that we are part of Dahlan’s group but we do not belong to Dahlan’s group or any other group,” he said, adding that he belonged to Abu Ammar, the historical name for late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“We are the sons of the Fatah movement. We refuse for anyone to label us as members of any other political party.” 

'We are not targeting any other parties, any citizen, or any other particular area'

-  Akram Al-Rjoub, governor of Nablus

For its part the authority has said that it is only carrying out normal security duties in the camps of the West Bank and that they are not politically motivated.
Akram Al-Rjoub, the governor of Nablus, said that “doing our duty doesn’t mean we are targeting Balata camp or any other camp. There is a group of wanted men accused of murder. We are following these suspects to arrest them and our goal is to bring them to justice.

“We are not targeting any other parties, any citizen, or any other particular area. We are targeting those suspects to put them in front of the law. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Authority accused of allowing Israeli incursions

But the situation is not just tense in Balata. Clashes between PA forces and unidentified gunmen in the al-Aqaba neighbourhood, in Nablus on 16 November left one woman dead and three PA officers wounded among others.

Residents there are angered by the behaviour of PA security forces, not least their inaction against daily Israeli incursions into the camps.

Members of the Palestinian security forces patrol in the West Bank city of Nablus on 19 August (AFP)
Abu Khader, 62, who lives with his family in the camp, said: “Residents no longer feel safe from either side. Attacks and incursions from the Israeli side can happen at any time – especially at night. And then, from the other side, the Palestinian Authority also attacks.
“The men, they want guarantees for their safety if they surrender,” he added, so that what happened to “Abu Ezz Halaweh in Nablus won’t happen with them.”

Halaweh, a former leader of Fatah’s Aksa Martyrs Brigade and captain in the Palestinian Police, was beaten to death in custody amid allegations that he killed two PA security personnel.

Over in  Jenin there is similar disillusion. The first thing you notice on entering the camp is the sheer number of young people sitting in roadside cafes.

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Azmi Eyad, 20, is one of those who left the school at the age of 17 to find work and help his family. He’s had little success, and explained that the only way to find a job is through favouritism.

But the problem is made worse, he said, by the PA cracking down on political parties in the camp under the guise of arrests. 
“I’m not against them arresting criminals,” he explained “but I am against the authorities arresting those who are resisting the Israeli occupation under the pretext of security coordination.

'You won’t see the Palestinian forces here unless they want to make an arrest or stop a protest'

- Mohammad Abu Alhaiga, 39, resident of Jenin

Mohammad Abu Alhaiga, 39, agreed. “Most of those young men without any prospects have to support one of the political parties if they want to get a job. “You won’t see the Palestinian forces here unless they want to make an arrest or stop a protest.”
Abu Alhaiga pointed out individuals in the street: each was now banned from travelling, their freedom of movement curtailed by order of the Palestinian Authority or Israel.
Others complained to Middle East Eye about how it’s difficult to receive a good education in a system where there are 55 students in a single class. The only options left for most are resistance or political activism – but then that comes down to which parties you chose to support.

'We refuse to obey the orders of Abbas'

At the Al-Amari camp in Ramallah, protests erupted after Abbas ousted Fatah lawmaker Jihad Tumelih, who organised a meeting which was attended by supporters of Dahlan.

Demonstrators torched tyres at the camp entrance. When they refused to stop, Palestinian security forces deployed tear gas and rubber bullets.

Thousands demonstrate against the PA in Ramallah in March 2016 as part of a teachers’ strike (MEE/Mustafa Harish)
One protester, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that young people do support Dahlan, but that this protest was a show of strength for Tumelih. They were targeted, he said, because “we refuse to obey the orders of Abbas.”

'One of the reasons that young people want to commit crimes is through the sense of social injustice accumulated throughout history'

- Ahmad Hannon, Department of Refugee Affairs, PLO

Ahmad Hannon is director of the department of refugee affairs for the PLO. He said that the economic problem in the camps had been made worse as residents do not have another source of income.

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The Israeli occupation also weakens the PA, he said, by exploiting the pressure on young people. “One of the reasons that young people want to commit crimes is through the sense of social injustice accumulated throughout history, from the occupation, aid from UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority and, of course, the general difficulties of life. But this does not justify rebelling against the law.”

The answer, Hanoon said, is not through politics but by raising social awareness among the population. But that, he added, takes time and effort from both the people and the PA.

And in the camps, they’re running out of time and patience.

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