RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian security forces have been conducting frequent raids of refugee camps and clashing with gunmen and rioting youths, as the Palestinian Authority tries to establish security among its increasingly restless and volatile populace.
Not even the relatively wealthy and calm Ramallah, the West Bank’s de facto capital, has been spared from outbreaks of violence. Riot police wielded truncheons and fired into the air late last month to disperse dozens of rampaging youths who had blocked city streets and forced store owners to shut their doors.
The Palestinian Authority’s shaky hold on security in the West Bank bodes ill for a Palestinian state, as well as Israel’s security at the border.
“Israel is worried about the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank. This is the reason it wants to maintain a security presence in a future Palestinian state. The [Palestinian Authority] will not be able to take care of Israel’s security needs,” said Pinhas Inbari, a security analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
In recent weeks, Palestinian security forces have searched refugee camps for militants and sparked gunfights that have ended with the deaths of two people, injuries to several security personnel and camp residents, and the arrests of dozens of refugees.
Mr. Inbari said the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, appears to have lost control over several of the camps, including the Balata camp near Nablus, the Jenin camp in the northern West Bank, and the Qalandia camp near Jerusalem.
“The PA tried the diplomatic approach, first by trying to reason with the gunmen and the residents, but that has failed. They then tried launching military assaults, but those, too, are not working,” the security analyst said.
Complicating the situation are the 550,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the Israeli government’s push to increase Jewish settlements in the territory it won in the 1967 Mideast war. Israeli planners gave final approval Wednesday for 558 apartments in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians seek to make the capital of a future state.
Palestinian officials said the decision undermines fragile U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel on setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Meanwhile, skirmishes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians add to the West Bank’s violence. Last year, Palestinian attacks resulted in the deaths of three Israeli security force members and one settler, and Israeli troops fatally shot 27 Palestinians, according to official tallies.
Warning about the risk of an uprising, a senior Israeli Defense Forces officer serving in the West Bank said that in his area, there are “some 100,000 Palestinians who have a score to settle with us, and each could do so at any moment.”
Palestinian security forces comprise about 75,000 men, according to official statistics.
Fueled by grinding poverty and political divisions, Palestinian discontent is spilling over into rage, boosting militants’ recruitment efforts in refugee camps, analysts say.
Though the Palestinian Authority has tried to rid the refugee camps of militants, it has failed to arrest significant numbers of known lawbreakers. Several raids of the Jenin camp failed to detain members of Islamic Jihad who have engaged in shootouts with PA security forces and were wanted by Israeli authorities.
About 750,000 Palestinian refugees have registered with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency throughout the West Bank’s 19 camps, according to the agency.
Hundreds of unemployed men — many of them foot soldiers of militant groups and still armed — reside in the camps. They accuse the Palestinian Authority of corruption, cronyism and aiding Israel’s occupation by doing much of the Jewish state’s dirty work.
Funeral processions for Palestinians shot dead by Israeli security forces have been punctuated by gunmen in the refugee camps firing into the air.
“The PA is trying to avoid clashes with these gunmen, and they realize they have lost full control of the camps. The last thing the Palestinian leadership wants is confrontations with Fatah gunmen who are politically associated with the Ramallah government,” said Samir Awad, a political science professor at Birzeit University, near Ramallah.
Fatah is the largest Palestinian political party, and its founding is rooted in the often violent revolutionary struggle once promoted by the Palestine Liberation Organization.
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