Upsurge in West Bank Violence Claims Life of Palestinian Official’s Brother
Palestinian Authority weakness is partly to blame, analysts say
The brother of one of the Palestinian Authority’s most powerful officials has become the latest victim of a surge in violence between rival clans and villages in the West Bank in recent months that analysts blame partly on weakness in the governing body.
Khalil al-Sheikh, 47, was fatally shot in the chest during a gun battle Wednesday night while mediating between two rival families in Al-Bireh, next to Ramallah, bringing the West Bank’s murder toll to 35 this year.
After his death, hundreds of masked men with automatic rifles roamed the streets of Ramallah, firing in the air and calling for revenge.
His older brother, Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the Palestinian Authority’s General Authority of Civil Affairs and a close adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called at the funeral for unity, as a spark could ignite armed conflict in PA-controlled areas in the West Bank.
“I promise to amputate my arm if it takes part in undermining our social and national fabric,” Sheikh, who is also a member of the ruling Fatah party’s central committee, told the crowd.
“I was hoping that Khalil would die while being pursued” by Israel, Sheikh said. “I was hoping, from the bottom of my heart, that the bullet that killed Khalil was an Israeli bullet.”
Last month, Emad al-Din Abu al-Ameed, the secretary-general of Fatah in the Balata refugee camp, was fatally shot in an altercation with PA security officers. PA officials warned that the security forces would not tolerate lawlessness or anarchy.
Majed Al-Arouri, a Ramallah-based legal and human-rights expert, told The Media Line that PA weakness is responsible for the security problem.
“In my view, there is a very severe case of disintegration in the various institutions affiliated with the Palestinian Authority. I believe that this disintegration, weakness and fragility have affected various institutions, including the security institutions responsible for imposing law and order.”
Arouri says the PA’s inability to impose its rule in all the areas under its control has contributed to the uptick in violence.
“Add its lack of financial capability, inability to pay employee salaries and the coronavirus pandemic’s effect to the Israeli threat of annexation, occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip,” he said.
The surge in violence is fueled by a deep economic crisis partly caused by months of government lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19. In addition, the US cut off millions of dollars in aid. Interim financial payments have come from the EU and wealthy Gulf states.
Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American political analyst based in Ramallah, told The Media Line that he attributes the violence to the multilayered crisis that Palestinian society is facing.
He blamed Israel and the Palestinian Authority: “Fifty-three years of occupation, more than 25 years of a failed peace process, a governing body that is for a long time unrepresentative, and more recently, threats of extreme aggression [because] … of annexation. The occupation played a major role in the deteriorating security situation.”
“Violence against women has been on the increase almost weekly. This is unacceptable,” Bahour said. “I have to place part of the responsibility on the governing power. They must do better.”
Bahour says no one should be surprised by the growing violence.
“We saw this coming. One aspect of that [is] the number of weapons … in the community. This is very troubling. If these weapons are not in the authorities’ hands, they become a time bomb.”
Jihad Harb, a political analyst who writes for several Palestinian media outlets, told The Media Line that a number of factors are fueling the violence.
“First, the absence of a political horizon and end to the occupation. Second, the lack of confidence in the Palestinian leadership. The third issue is its inability to govern.”
Harb says that the West Bank’s clan system is also a cause of governmental weakness and makes it harder for the government to uphold the Basic Law and international agreements signed in 2014. Therefore, the government has “abandoned state values, which are linked to the rule of law.” This has shaken its political standing among Palestinians because it cannot defend itself and impose security on its own, he said.
Another reason Harb alludes to is the absence of a clear successor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, 84, which results in a power struggle.
“It leads to the presence of strong centers in Palestinian society as well as in the political leadership. These forces are … expanding their military power and allying with social forces that have familial and material weapons-related weight.”
Arouri said that within the many groups jockeying for position ahead of the post-Abbas era, each leader is making sure that his supporters are well-financed and armed.
He agreed with Harb, saying that there is not a single PA institution with “legitimacy.”
“The last legislative elections were held in the Palestinian territories in 2006, and the presidential elections were last held in 2005, and now we are in 2020. We are talking about more than 15 years in which no Palestinian elections were held. There is no legislative council, the judiciary is weak and the security institutions are weak.”
Unemployment in the West Bank has skyrocketed from around 27% before the pandemic to around 60% now.
With the economy faltering, unemployment widespread and many Palestinian families living below the poverty line, the environment is ripe for an increase in violence, Arouri says.
“Unfortunately, when the government and its leadership are clearly headed by the Fatah movement, the phenomena of lawlessness and increasing numbers of armed men that existed in the past have emerged again.”
Each member of Fatah’s upper echelon is working to strengthen himself and his armed group.
“There is a clear and significant proliferation of weapons in several areas in the West Bank and in its refugee camps,” Arouri said. “Estimates are that the amount of weapons in the people’s hands is two to three times the number of weapons the PA security services have.”
The PA has worked hard since 2006 to collect weapons that are suspected of being used against Israel, he said.
“We can say that the West Bank is very clean of any weapons that can be used against the Israeli occupation. The people who have these weapons are arrested.”
However, weapons in the hands of the various Palestinian leaders in the West Bank are left there by the PA and Israel, he added.