Al-Khalil: Cracking down on Palestinian resistance under the pretext of criminal offenses and business interests

by Ola al-Tamimi, Al-Akhbar English

Unit 101 of the Palestinian Authority is carrying out a major security crackdown south of Al-Khalil, which it claims it meant to pursue wanted fugitives. But that region happens to be under the Israeli occupation’s control, so it is unlikely that the Palestinian Authority is only seizing “illegal weapons” but not the “resistance weapons” it may find. While it would be inaccurate to claim that there are no criminal activities taking place there, the operations of the Palestinian Authority in the areas witnessing friction with Occupation may not be entirely innocent.

Al-Khalil – On October 16, Bilal al-Rajabi, a young man, was shot dead by Palestinian security forces following clashes in the southern area of the city of Al-Khalil (in the southern West Bank), an area fully controlled by Israeli occupation forces.

At the time, the Palestinian Authority claimed Rajabi was a wanted fugitive, and was part of a group of outlaws who had ambushed the security forces that night. So far, no statement has been made by the Rajabi family, one of the largest and most influential clans in the city. The issue has not been resolved tribally either, and no blood money has been paid for the young man’s death, as is customary in tribal arbitration of such cases.

As a result of that incident, there were tireless efforts made by tribal dignitaries in Al-Khalil and other notable figures, who flocked to the office of the governor of Al-Khalil in an initial attempt to contain the repercussions of the incident and prevent a popular backlash against the Palestinian Authority and the Occupation – a development that the Palestinian Authority fears immensely.

In parallel with those efforts, a large-scale security campaign was declared in the southern region, ostensibly targeting fugitives as asserted by the Palestinian Authority. Unit 101, which previously worked to impose order in Jenin following Israel’s assassination of Islam al-Toubasi last year, was deployed. The unit has been handling the crackdown for nearly a week now, with the campaign expected to be the largest in scope since the crackdown implemented on the eve of the attack in Bani Na’im in 2010, in which four Israelis were killed.

To understand the purpose of the Palestinian Authority-led crackdown, we need to recall the nature of the southern region in Al-Khalil, which represents an area of direct confrontation with the Occupation. In that region as well, the economic interests of the city’s dignitaries and business people, which they are keen to safeguard, are an important factor in the imposition of broad security arrangements to rein in any “unlawful” activities that would threaten these interests – whether these acts are directed at the Occupation or are of a criminal nature.

An anti-Occupation hotspot

The southern region in Al-Khalil has been designated since 1997 as Area 2H, a classification based on dividing the city into two areas – 1H and 2H – after the Hebron (Al-Khalil) Protocol was signed between the PLO and the Occupation. Around 30,000 Palestinians live in Area 2H in addition to 500 Israeli settlers distributed across four settlements. Since then, the entire area was placed under the full control of the Israeli army, and the Palestinian security forces are not allowed to enter except in coordination with the Occupation.

Due to the presence of settlers there, the area became a zone of direct confrontation with the Occupation. Numerous operations against the Occupation since the 1980s have taken place here, including the attack in Haret al-Nasara (Death Alley in November 2002); the sniping of Israeli soldier Gal Kobi near the Ibrahimi Mosque in October 2013; and numerous clashes in the vicinity of the Tariq bin Ziad School near the same mosque.

In 2010, the same area was the scene of the assassination of Nashaat al-Karmi and Maamoun al-Natsheh, who were behind the attack in Bani Na’im (Operation Torrent of Fire). At the time, the people of Jabal Jawhar retrieved the bodies of the two martyrs and took them to an undisclosed location, fearing the Israeli army would take the bodies.

On the other hand, the southern region of Al-Khalil serves a crucial function in supporting the industrial zone, one of the largest in the province, which is home to the prominent marble and stone industry in the area and 270 factories producing various other products. This means that any security issue not only leads to cordoning off the neighborhoods of the southern region, but also the closure of all factories and workshops in the industrial zone, causing huge losses to their owners and employees. This explains why the latter are interested in long-lasting order and security.

Security priorities: at the expense of the locals

For the reasons explained earlier, the southern region has become a hotbed of tension and crisis for both the Palestinian and Israeli security establishments, meaning that it has to be placed under strict security control to prevent clashes there from spreading to the rest of Al-Khalil.

In other words, tens of thousands of people who live in those neighborhoods are living in a “riot zone.” However, absent from the discourse of the governor’s office, the municipality, and the chamber of commerce is any reference to the living conditions of the population there, and the reasons that push youths in the region – as the Palestinian Authority claims – to be involved in car theft and drug trafficking.

Ramallah has defended its approach, saying that the priority for development in the city is for infrastructure, including roads and transportation networks. However, this is taking place at the expense of schools, employment opportunities for young people, and reforming the economic administration of Al-Khalil. Indeed, resources and businesses are controlled by a handful of influential figures, as had emerged clearly following the second intifada, when the Occupation forces closed down the city’s commercial center, more than 70 percent of which was located within the southern region.

After the closure, most economic activity moved to the northern part of Al-Khalil, which reinforced the stratification of the city into two regions, a southern one where no real development takes place, leading to high rates of poverty, school dropouts, early marriages, and unemployment; and a northern region where most economic and development activity is concentrated.

While businesspeople have grown richer, around 26.1 percent of the people of Al-Khalil are unemployed. This has reached such an alarming extent that the unemployment rate in the city was the highest in the West Bank in the first quarter of this year, with the primary cause being the priority given to security matters over people’s livelihoods.

Clan leaders: the other face of the Palestinian Authority

All this explains why the powers that be want to control the situation in the southern region. On the one hand, clashes in the vicinity of the Tariq bin Ziyad School have to be kept in check. On the other hand, the authorities want to stop criminal activities like car thefts, but if this task were to be handled by the Occupation, it would ignite the entire region, if not the whole city, as happened before. This is why support forces are needed and are being authorized by Israel to enter the area, and who better to do that job than the Palestinian security services?

In this context, attention must be given to the dignitaries of Al-Khalil, who since the Oslo Accords have played an important role in supporting the Palestinian Authority and its security operations in the city. They have even adopted a discourse that calls for improving the living conditions of the Palestinian people, even if this is done under the Occupation.

Between Rajabi’s death and the current campaign, the dignitaries issued a statement explaining their position. The statement said, “We support all the plans of our brothers in the security services in the comprehensive security campaign until all its goals are achieved…for the sake of preserving security and the foundations of…civil peace.” The statement added, “All signatories stress the need not to protect law-breakers, and denounce the irrational, destructive, and negative campaigns against the Palestinian Authority, while praising the actions of the security forces in Bab al-Zawiya to rein in subversive elements in the area whose actions unintentionally serve the Occupation’s objectives.”

It is important here to elaborate the last part of the statement, regarding Bab al-Zawiya. This area has seen large demonstrations against the Occupation, which means that the dignitaries support the Palestinian Authority security services’ repression of the demonstrators. Furthermore, Bab al-Zawiya has been undergoing a process of “economic rehabilitation” for two years, meaning that certain elements want to avoid damage to their economic interests as a result of continued protests against the Occupation.

It is no secret that the merchants in that area have expressed their annoyance to the Palestinian liaison office more than once on account of the damage sustained by their interests because of the clashes, and made requests through the chamber of commerce for a radical solution to the security situation in Bab al-Zawiya. This is something that the statement above confirms, having described the youths confronting the Occupation as “subversive elements,” a term the Palestinian Authority uses to condemn any actions that are not in line with its own understanding of the concept of “peaceful resistance.”

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