December 14, 1995 in Nation/World

Armed Gangs Vex Palestinians Street Fighters Have Ruled Parts Of West Bank City

Associated Press

Dressed in olive-drab pants and an army vest, the Palestinian street fighter let his presence be known with two bursts from an M-16 automatic rifle.

“We aren’t thugs. We’re strugglers,” said Ahmed Tabouk, 31, who was surrounded by fellow gunmen and a crowd of admirers that swelled to several thousand as he marched through Nablus’ old city.

Tabouk’s vigilantes, known as the Fatah Hawks, have ruled the maze of twisting alleyways of the Casbah, a centuries old city-within-a-city, for the past two years. In the absence of police, the Hawks enforced the law, drove out drug dealers and those who informed to Israeli authorities.

They acted, at least in part, as an enforcement arm for the PLO.

Today, the Hawks and groups like them are a challenge for the newly arrived Palestinian police force of Yasser Arafat, which took control of the West Bank’s largest city earlier this week.

The march, during which Tabouk’s followers fired off automatic rifles and pistols, was organized as a show of strength following rumors that the Palestinian Authority’s new leaders in Nablus were ready to rein in the Hawks.

“The situation with the gunmen is temporary,” said Palestinian police Sgt. Wael Muhsen as he watched Tabouk’s men demonstrate. “In a couple of months, the security will be good, and we will clean up the situation. We will disarm.”

In the Casbah, at least, Tabouk is a hero. His crew cut and rugged good looks are reminiscent of action movie hero Jean Claude Van Damme. No one speaks against him, and he is clearly admired as a Robin Hood figure who came from the poor to keep the streets free of corruption.

But in the broader city of 120,000, much of the public is fed up with gangs and gunmen. Tabouk’s group - which numbers about 50 - is known for extorting money from merchants and burning the property of those who refuse to pay, and for attacking people who violate community custom, such as drinking wine.

One man who dared to criticize the group said Tabouk put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him if he continued to speak against the Hawks. The man spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

In the past two years, Tabouk and his vigilantes killed at least three and perhaps five Palestinians and shot 40 others in the kneecaps.

“As any honest person, my role was to fight crime, and maintain security,” Tabouk said.

© Copyright 1995 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email