Palestinians fail to stem lawlessness in the West Bank

JERUSALEM — Given the scrutiny of its performance on the "road map" peace plan, the Palestinian Authority is happy to trumpet its successes.

Palestinian Authority "security forces" apprehended four people this week "on their way to a terrorist attack," Palestinian officials announced.

Palestinian Authority statistics show a sharp decrease in such attacks — from 13 a day prior to the main Palestinian terrorist groups' cease-fire — to 1.3 a day in the past three weeks.

In that sense, the past few weeks have been days of fewer guns and more roses. But the other side of the story is the Palestinian Authority's failure not only to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad — as called for under the road map — but also to cope with blatant dissent and challenges to the rule of law.

The most recent examples are two kidnappings: one of the governor of the Jenin District, the other of an Israeli cab driver.

Both hostages were freed — the cab driver by Israeli commandos, the governor by order of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Both acts of lawlessness took place in the West Bank, where Palestinian Authority police forces are still relatively crippled, compared to the Gaza Strip.

However, even if he had a stronger police force, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas likely would think twice before acting, given the political atmosphere in the territories.

The kidnapping of the Jenin governor, Khaidar Arshid, exposed a state of anarchy in the Palestinian territories. Arshid was driving his car through the town's marketplace when another car passed him and blocked his way, forcing him to stop.

A number of masked gunmen pulled Arshid out of his car and drove him to the central square of the Jenin refugee camp, the scene of heavy battles with the Israel Defense Forces last year.

The kidnappers beat up Arshid in front of a cheering crowd, then drove him to their hideout. He was released five hours later — not by Palestinian policemen, but rather by direct orders from Arafat.

The kidnappers came from the al-Aksa Brigade, which is the military wing of Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement, and which insists on continuing violence against Israel.

The group's leader, Zakariya Zbeidi, 24, announced that the kidnapping was a punitive measure against Arshid for allegedly collaborating with Israel in arresting Palestinians. Zbeidi also accused Arshid of financial corruption.

The short-lived drama was indicative of the complexity of the situation: The militias signaled that they are not willing to disarm, challenged Abbas' leadership and showed that Arafat is still the real leader in the Palestinian territories.

"The president gave the order to release him," Zbeidi said, referring to Arafat, and "we must obey."

Zbeidi gave interviews to the Israeli media in fluent Hebrew. That is an irony of Palestinian history: Before the intifada, Zbeidi and his family belonged to what might pass for a peace camp in Palestinian society, meeting with Israelis and calling for a peaceful settlement with Israel.

However, after some of his family members were killed in the intifada, Zbeidi joined the violence, which he refuses to give up even after the main terrorist groups — including his own al-Aksa Brigade — declared a cease-fire.

Arshid's kidnapping wasn't the only example of lawlessness this week. The Palestinian Authority possessed the same intelligence that enabled Israeli commandos to free cab driver Eliyahu Gurel — who had been kidnapped and held in a hole in the ground at a construction site near Ramallah — yet it refused to act to release him.

West Bank residents seeking police help or legal recourse often have no one to turn to. When Israel surrounded or invaded Palestinian population centers in response to terror attacks, the entire legal system collapsed — as did the law enforcement apparatus.

Last week, hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets of Nablus to protest the continued lack of personal security and the fact that Palestinian gangs posing as "freedom fighters" were using their guns to rob people.

In an interview with The New York Times last weekend, Abbas said he would put an end to such violence once Israel withdrew from other West Bank cities, though he conceded that the Palestinian Authority security forces would face a difficult task.

"They're strong," he said of people he called outlaws. "But we are stronger.''

Last week Arafat sent an emissary to the Jenin refugee camp to convince rebellious Fatah activists to join the cease-fire, but the message did not get through — either because the messenger was not convincing enough or because this state of affairs suits Arafat best.

With the Palestinians facing a security vacuum, Arafat enforces law and order when it suits his interests. It's an ideal way of showing, ahead of Abbas' initial White House meeting with President Bush, that it is Arafat who still calls the political shots — and can prevent the fatal ones.

One person who may assist him is Col. Jibril Rajoub, the powerful head of the Preventive Security Service in the West Bank before the intifada. Relations between Arafat and Rajoub deteriorated during the intifada, when Rajoub was accused of surrendering his police post to Israeli forces too quickly, and Arafat subsequently fired him.

Rajoub recently recovered from cancer treatment in Germany, and Arafat now is considering appointing him to a senior position — possibly as a counterbalance to his old partner, Mohammed Dahlan, who is in charge of security affairs for Abbas and has clashed with Arafat.

Rajoub may help restore law and order — while decisively tipping the scale toward Arafat in his ongoing power struggle with Abbas.