Palestinian militants from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia linked to the Fatah movement, demonstrate against the Hamas government in the West Bank town of Ramallah October 4, 2006.
Ammar Awad / Reuters

In the early morning hours of August 23, the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) arrested Ahmed Halawa. While in custody, the 50-year-old was viciously beaten to death. The incident caused an uproar in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, Halawa’s hometown; thousands took to the streets for his funeral procession, shouting slogans against the Palestinian Authority and dodging tear gas fired by the security forces. The facts of the events leading up to Halawa’s death are surrounded by rumor and innuendo. In the government’s telling, Halawa was an “outlaw and criminal” responsible for a litany of offenses, including “masterminding” the shooting death of four PASF officers in recent months. For the thousands who mourned him, however, Halawa was a peaceful local power broker who, by one telling, was collecting weapons in an effort to avoid a costly clan war.

As one source in Ramallah put it, “You ask ten people about the ‘Nablus affair,’ and you’ll get ten different answers.” And yet two things about Halawa are certain: until the day he died, he was a long-serving police officer in the same Palestinian Authority security apparatus responsible for his death, and he was a senior member of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the dormant armed wing of the Fatah movement, which controls the PA. Thus, the main question remains why Fatah felt the need to go after one of its own prominent sons.

For answers, some context is required. Nestled in a white-stone mountain range, Nablus has earned its violent nickname as “the Mountain of Fire.” The Israeli army, for its part, took to calling Nablus the “terror capital” of the West Bank due to the sheer volume of attacks launched from the city during the second intifada (2000­–­­2005). Halawa, as an al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade chief, was almost certainly involved in these operations. That made him a wanted man in Israel, at least until Jerusalem issued a general amnesty for Fatah militants at the end of the uprising. The al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was then nominally dissolved, with many fighters subsequently incorporated into the PASF and other layers of Palestinian officialdom.

Yet the group never fully disarmed, setting up pockets of influence in various refugee camps in the West Bank, including in the Balata camp on the outskirts of Nablus, and in Nablus’ Old City, where Halawa was widely considered the resident strongman. For years, the PASF viewed these areas as extraterritorial “no go” zones, due to its own humble military capabilities, as well as the shared Fatah affiliation of many of the groups. As a U.S. official serving in Jerusalem once explained, some in the PA viewed the former Fatah fighters as a “strategic reserve” for any future conflict with Israel.

A Palestinian woman paints a mural, depicting a masked Palestinian holding a knife, in support of Palestinians committing stabbing attacks against Israelis, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip November 3, 2015.
A Palestinian woman paints a mural, depicting a masked Palestinian holding a knife, in support of Palestinians committing stabbing attacks against Israelis, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip November 3, 2015.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
Beginning in early 2015, however, the PASF and “armed elements” in Nablus, as press reports put it, began clashing. An increasingly assertive PASF would encounter resistance during arrest operations for wanted men, in particular inside Balata. For all the bullets fired by both sides, however, actual casualties were an extreme rarity. More often, such disputes reached a mediated solution, which indicated that they were intra-Fatah affairs. This past summer, however, something changed.

The precipitating event came in late June, when gunmen opened fire outside the home of a PASF officer in Nablus, injuring his wife and daughter and killing two other officers who responded to the incident. Rumors had it that this lethal incident was spillover from a local dispute between families over a market stall in the Old City. The PASF responded at what they perceived to be the source, raiding the warren-like alleyways of the Old City in August, wherein they were ambushed and suffered two additional casualties. The next night, with increased force, they launched another raid and killed two wanted gunmen, including Halawa’s young nephew. A follow-up operation days later netted Halawa himself, who was taken into custody alive and subsequently killed.

The overall operation, it’s worth noting, was one of the biggest security campaigns undertaken by the PASF in its history: the paramilitary National Security Forces battalion stationed in Nablus was augmented by an additional NSF battalion, forces were streamed in from neighboring Tubas, and a special operations police unit was deployed, as were agents from the various intelligence services.

After the killing, images of Halawa’s badly beaten body quickly made the rounds on social media, sparking the public outcry. The PA responded by announcing the formation of a governmental committee of inquiry to investigate the incident. Akram Rajoub, the governor of Nablus, maintained that Halawa was a criminal but admitted to The New York Times that “of course [his killing] was a mistake.” “The officers should not have reacted this way,” he said. Most Palestinians seem to agree. “People are angry,” Tayseer Nasrallah, a well-connected community leader in the Balata camp, said a short time after Halawa’s killing. “We might have gangs, but we don’t appreciate the PA acting in a gang-like manner.” Nasrallah, as are many others in Nablus, is in favor of what Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, has called “security stability”—the elusive Palestinian concept of “one authority, one gun”—but also justice and due process. 

The gangs of former al Aqsa fighters are armed, and in many instances better armed than the PASF. If the official government line is to believed, they are also involved in weapons trafficking, drug smuggling, racketeering, and other criminal activities. “No one has an issue with the PA dealing with lawlessness and crime ... and there shouldn’t be areas that are off-limits to the police,” said a prominent Nablus-based businessman. “But it’s not an either-or situation.” Rajoub, who is also a former PA intelligence chief, has had to navigate this security tangle, with all its attendant high-level political and international attention. Reached in his office one week after Halawa’s funeral, Rajoub was unflinching in his determination to impose law and order and rid the streets of illegal weapons.

Indeed, the West Bank is awash with guns, many made locally. Some have been used in terrorist attacks against Israelis, prompting a major campaign by the Israeli army in recent months to eliminate the workshops where such weapons are crudely produced. But Palestinians overwhelmingly keep weapons for more personal reasons: to celebrate a wedding, a birth, a graduation, or for protection in the event of a familial dispute or general criminality. Yet Fatah-affiliated gunmen have not turned their weapons on Israel again, despite the past year’s increased unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Although Rajoub did indicate that fulfilling “regional commitments”—code for the PA’s security coordination with Israel—was a consideration in launching the August security operation, it did not seem to be the primary reason for the renewed emphasis on illegal weapons or the crackdown on Halawa. Rather, the fact that PASF officers were now being targeted and killed on the streets was a major source of agitation, and as Rajoub put it, a challenge to “the strength and image of the [PA] in the eyes of the people.” The PA thus had to respond.

Masked Palestinian militants from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah movement, take part in an anti-Israel military drill in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip March 25, 2015.
Masked Palestinian militants from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah movement, take part in an anti-Israel military drill in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip March 25, 2015.
Suhaib Salem / Reuters
The PA had for too long turned a blind eye toward and acted with restraint regarding weapons held by Fatah-affiliated gunmen (or, in Halawa’s case, especially by Fatah-affiliated individuals). Yet Rajoub and other sources in Nablus, in comparing the armed gangs in Nablus to Hamas militants, the sworn Islamist enemies of the PA and Fatah, effectively conceded that part of the reason for the strong response against Halawa might very well have been political. “In the Hamas case,” Rajoub explained, “these were political weapons, and they were used viciously against Fatah” in 2007, when Hamas violently expelled the PA from the Gaza Strip. The PA, with Israeli assistance, has for at least two years been engaged in a major crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, with positive results. From the PA’s perspective, an additional political threat apparently loomed on the horizon, this time emanating from inside the Fatah movement.

“The PA is scared of this ‘monster’ called Dahlan,” explained Nasrallah in Balata. Muhammad Dahlan is a former senior PA official and Gazan security chief who has for several years been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates after a very public falling-out with Abbas. However, with Gulf Arab money and high-level international connections—American and Israeli, some even surmise—Dahlan has been studiously plotting his comeback. In recent months, several reports have maintained that the “Arab Quartet” (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) has been pressuring Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan. Abbas has so far refused, even exploding publicly early last month against what he described as foreign meddling in internal Palestinian affairs. “Release us from the capitals, and from the money of the capitals and the influence of the capitals. We want to work as Palestinians,” an emotional Abbas said in Ramallah.

Dahlan has been known to funnel money into refugee camps and other underserved locales as a way to increase his influence on the ground. The PA has, in turn, acted against those individuals deemed close to Dahlan, including known associates of Halawa, expelling them from Fatah and the PASF. The specter of Halawa, a local Fatah leader, amassing weapons just as international pressure was building for Abbas to allow Dahlan’s return may go a long way toward explaining the lethality of what eventually transpired in Nablus. Whether based in fact or a flight of fancy, someone in the PA may truly have believed that a political threat was forming in the Old City.

Since Halawa’s raucous funeral procession, tensions in Nablus have significantly decreased. Even one week after the event, life in the city’s bustling downtown had returned to normal—aided in no small part by the payment of PA salaries ahead of the Eid al-Adha holiday. The rare PASF officers stationed in the Old City and at the sprawling government complex where the governor has his offices did not seem overly on edge. Even the Halawa family home, deep in the Old City, was, according to reports, in the process of being rebuilt with PA assistance.

It seems that both the PA and the former gunmen of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have for the time being taken a step back from an even bigger clash. As a former Fatah militant close to Halawa once said, “When you put Fatah under pressure, it performs better.” The future stability of the West Bank, to say nothing of the Palestinian national movement, depends on how Fatah handles this incipient civil war.

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  • NERI ZILBER is a journalist and researcher on Middle Eastern politics and culture and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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