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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Fate of Nablus (Shechem): Anarchy Prevails

Hebron is consolidating itself as a community that is led by clans and tribes and is linked with Jordan. Ramallah is beginning a consolidation process within a civil-society framework. Nablus, however, while trying to remain connected with Ramallah, is in a process of disintegration. Anarchy prevails there, and the heads of the city have begun to speak openly about the dismantlement of the Palestinian Authority and a tribal consolidation as in Hebron, while also putting out feelers to Jordan.

Nablus in statistics
Population 185,314
Total area 29 km2
Built area 8.7 km2, which represents 30 percent of the overall size of the city
Balata refugee camp
Population 27,000 (Disenfranchised. Refugees do not vote in local elections.)
Total area 0.25 km2
Mayor Sameeh Rawhi Tubaila

On June 1, 2016, unknown persons in Nablus fired at the house of the Fatah strongman Ghassan Shak’a,1 who was recently forced to  resign as head of the municipality under circumstances to be detailed below. Interestingly, no one blamed either Hamas or Israel; it was assumed instead that Fatah “agents” were behind the act. 

This was apparently not the first attempt to assassinate Shak’a. In a previous incident his brother Barack was killed, but some say Shak’a himself was the intended target and his brother was hit because of the resemblance between the two.2 

Nablus. Note the palatial home of Munib al-Masri, on the horizon3

The assassination sparked a flurry of reactions on Nablus Facebook pages; all of them pointed to the severe strife within Fatah as forming the background for the act.

For example, Fawzi Uthman wrote:4 “A cowardly act, with no justification – and how long, Palestinian Authority, will the illegal weapons remain? We are not ignorant: every gang that has illegal weapons is in cahoots with one of the top officials so that he can use the gang to bolster his status and extend his control, and may God have mercy on the days of the intifada and the rise of the PA in 1993.” He was, in other words, lamenting the intifada that led to the PA’s establishment—and, indirectly, to Israel’s withdrawal…5

Aerial view of Balata Refugee Camp
Balata Refugee Camp (UNRWA)

The anarchy stems from the longstanding struggle between the large refugee camps of Balata and Askar, on the one hand and the city of Nablus itself, on the other. Unlike in other West Bank cities, the largest refugee camps are actually located along the main route in Nablus, very close to the casbah, hence strongly affecting the life of the city.

Clip of gun battle in Nablus, uploaded June 11, 20166.

Against the refugee camps stands the undeclared federation of the veteran aristocratic families, with the Masri family at their helm. These families marry between themselves, and the Shak’a family belongs to this alliance. Like the families of Hebron, the Masri confederation, too, has ties with Jordan. Indeed, its economic base is in Jordan and buttresses its existence in Nablus.

Nevertheless, Ghassan Shak’a was personally loyal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, was a member of the Fatah Central Committee, tried as much as possible to maintain ties with Ramallah, and hoped that the official PA security forces would protect the city from the refugee camps. However, the gunfire directed at his house and the lack of a response from Ramallah, discouraged him and the other Ramallah supporters in Nablus, and they began to speak a different language. For example, General Abd al-Ilah al-Atira, a revered figure in Fatah and one of the heroes of the 1968 Battle of Karameh against the Israeli army, sent Abbas a letter that was posted on the website of the local Nablus television outlet:7

Nablus aches and is despondent, and its residents are afraid, and apprehension rules in the street, shooting is a daily occurrence, and they [the gangs] close the streets whenever they want, and burn tires everywhere, and the law is only enforced with God’s help, and everyone flees from responsibility – drugs are dangerously widespread, the seats of sovereignty are empty, and political scores are settled in Nablus. Mr. President: your intervention is urgently needed; to the gentlemen in the president’s bureau – please, put the letter on the honorable president’s table.

Indeed, the tire-burning that was a regular feature of the first Intifada is now a daily reality in Nablus. Here, for example, the Nablus website shows tire-burning in the Rafidiya neighborhood in protest of the municipality’s failures.8

Burning tires in Nablus.
Burning tires in Nablus.

When the PA’s response was late in coming, Ghassan Shak’a appeared on local television9 and said:

Up to now I was one of those who opposed taking the law into one’s own hands – that is the task of the PA, but the question is how long can one wait? Every hooligan cannot be allowed to [run wild], and the question is whether it is really the hooligan or someone above him [who sends him] and pays him. If everyone takes the law into his own hands there will be anarchy and the PA will collapse. But that is the responsibility of the official government. When they fired at me they also fired in Jenin and in Tulkarem, and there are even cases of shooting in Ramallah. The official security must take responsibility, but for everyone equally, not just for cronies. If I settle the score [with the shooters] – what does one need a PA for?

Ghassan al-Shakaa
Ghassan al-Shakaa

When these words, too, brought no response from Ramallah, Shak’a took a harder line toward the PA. On Saturday, June 4, 2016, he told London-based Rai Al-Youm,10 which noted that “the man speaks the language of the tribe”:

We may have to take our rights into our own hands…. We are not weak, in case anyone thinks we won’t take our rights [into our own hands]. They want to drag us into this arena and force every one of the notables to purchase a firearm so that the whole people will know [the language] of lead and fire…. The danger is at its peak when one feels that he is not safe in his own home and that the PA is not strong enough to protect him; then everyone safeguards himself with a weapon and will respond to whoever attacks him, without turning to the courts…. If the inaction [continues], everyone will say – if [the PA] does not go after the one who attacked me – I will go after him.

The Nablus website showed an example of wild gunfire at a wedding and noted that such things happen daily.11

When no response came from Ramallah, Shak’a stated that Fatah does not reflect his aspirations anymore and that he will run in the next municipal elections with his own list of candidates against the Fatah slate.12 He also praised Hamas for their success in restoring law and order in Gaza and criticized the Fatah Central Committee’s decisions to boycott Israel and to stop security cooperation with Israel.13

Shak’a also said that the Palestinian economy is dependent on Israel and that negotiations are the better path to dealing with Israel.

The announcement of new municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza triggered another assassination attempt on July 24, 2016. An early morning a fusillade of bullets struck the home of Muhammad Jihad Dwekat just days after he announced his intention to run for Nablus mayor as an independent non-Fatah candidate.14 Sources in Nablus also explained the second shooting was a message also directed against Shak’a not to run on a list challenging the Fatah list.15  

An investigation by Rai Al-Youm newspaper carried out in Nablus raised further speculation about the motives behind the shooting. Only a week before it, Shak’a hosted in his house – the same house that was the target of the gunfire – the former Jordanian Prime Minister Abd al-Salam al-Majali, and the subject of their talk was the idea of a confederation between the West Bank and the East Bank. Shak’a had also angered radical Fatah elements by attending the funeral of IDF Brig. Gen. Munir Amar, who had been head of the Israeli civil administration and died in a plane crash.

Whether or not there is a connection, elements in Ramallah can at least suspect that Nablus is following in the footsteps of Hebron by seeking ties with Jordan…and with Israel.

When General Atira spoke of the “empty seats of sovereignty,” he was referring to two previous events: Ghassan Shak’a’s resignation from the Nablus municipality and the resignation of the governor of Nablus, Akram Rajoub, under pressure from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of the refugee camps.

The clashes in Nablus reached a peak on June 6, 1916, when the Aqsa Martyrs killed two high-ranking Palestinian Authority officers16 in a shootout after the Martyrs attacked the home of another officer, wounding his wife. The dead men had rushed to the aid of the besieged family. It was not the first time the Aqsa Martyrs attacked officers of the PA. [See, for example a flyer threatening an officer.]17

Who are the Aqsa Martyrs of Nablus? They are militant cells affiliated with Fatah and established in the refugee camps by Yasser Arafat as part of the second intifada.18 According to sources in Nablus, their main activity now is criminal. Nobody approaches their camp “territory,” not even the PA. But the Martyrs have now crossed a boundary and entered the city to extort the merchants for “protection” and to pay for the “national cause.” They traffic in narcotics and shoot at will. Nablus residents call them the “takhikha” – the shooters – said the sources in Nablus.

Aqsa Martyrs
Aqsa Martyrs19

Shak’a was forced to resign in August 2015 following mass demonstrations opposite the municipality over water and electricity stoppages at the apex of the summer heat. The problem was not really solved, and now, as another summer intensifies, it will be interesting to see how the municipality responds to the crisis that is sure to come. The burning tires in the Rafidiya neighborhood could be omens.

Discharged Nablus governor Akram Rajoub
Discharged Nablus governor Akram Rajoub

The Akram Rajoub affair is also worth clarifying. In keeping with its policy of appointing governors from one district to serve in another district, the PA appointed senior Fatah official Rajoub, who is from Mount Hebron, as governor of Nablus. This appointment was not to the liking of the Fatah militias in the refugee camps. There were exchanges of fire in Nablus, streets were closed, and intifada phenomena occurred in various parts of the city.20 The Nablus families, including the head of the municipality, Ghassan Shak’a, supported the governor. But when the anarchic events multiplied and the governor asked Ramallah to intervene, Abbas turned him a cold shoulder. Rajoub then resigned, but Gassan Shak’a went to the PA headquarters at the Muqata’a and explained to Abbas the seriousness of the matter. Rajoub returned to his post, but no action was taken against the gangs so far. 

The anarchy in Nablus may spread, senior Fatah official Tawfiq Tirawi warned Abu Mazen.21 He said in a letter that the anarchy does not endanger the Authority alone, but the fate of the whole Palestinian people.

It was also reported that Hamas is looking now for its chances to recruit armed cells for terror activity inside Israel.

 (“And in those days there was no king in [Nablus]; everyone did what was right in his own eyes….” Judges 17:6)

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5 Senior sources in Fatah’s Jenin contingent told the author that the prevailing inclination in Jenin is to abolish the PA and form one state with Israel.










15   In private conversation with the author.





20 In an outstanding report from the Jenin refugee camp, Ohad Hamo revealed that the camps’ real struggle is being waged against the PA.