Nablus Erupts After Arrest of Hamas Men by Palestinian Security Forces

Resident killed as bullets, stones fly in new sign of Palestinian Authority’s deterioration

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Palestinian demonstrators protesting the arrest of two Palestinian militants clash with Palestinian security forces, in Nablus, today.
Palestinian demonstrators protesting the arrest of two Palestinian militants clash with Palestinian security forces, in Nablus, today.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Clashes broke out before dawn on Tuesday between residents of Nablus and Palestinian Authority security forces, after the latter arrested two Hamas operatives wanted by Israel.

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Protesters burned tires, threw stones at the PA forces and shots were heard in the city’s main square. Armed men in Nablus and Jenin took to the streets and warned the PA forces not to cooperate with Israel. In Jenin, shots were fired at the governor’s offices. One resident of Nablus, Firas Yaish, 53, was fatally shot in the head during the clashes and two others were wounded.

Firas Yaish, 53, who was killed in clashes overnight

A meeting on Tuesday evening between representatives of the Palestinian factions and local PA security commanders failed to restore calm, after the PA made clear that it would not release the Hamas prisoners. According to Palestinian reports, one of the prisoners, Musab Ashtaya, is high on Israel’s wanted list, and the other is Mohammed Tabila. Ashtaya and Tabila rose to the top of the wanted list after Ibrahim al-Nabulsi was killed last month in Nablus by the Border Police counter-terrorism unit.

Ashtaya was part of a local armed squad known as the “Nablus Battalion” or the “Lions of Nablus,” and he is suspected of involvement in shooting at Israeli forces and worshippers at the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus. Haaretz has learned that his arrest came on the initiative of PA security forces in Nablus, without reference to his being wanted by Israel. According to a Palestinian security source, Ashtaya began to operate outside the old city of Nablus and took on the trappings of a commander of the zone, which led to his arrest. Israeli security services confirmed that it had made five unsuccessful attempts to arrest Ashtaya in the past.

A spokesman for the Palestinian security forces, Talal Dweikat, said the two men were arrested in the framework of the forces’ “security needs.” He added that they were in good condition and representatives of human rights groups would be allowed to visit them. On the death of Nablus resident Firas Yaish, Dweikat said a preliminary investigation showed that PA security forces were not present at the scene of the shooting. According to reports, Yaish was a bystander, and not involved in the clashes.

Hamas denounced the arrests and demanded the immediate release of the two men, calling on the PA “not to play into Israel’s hands.” At the same time, Fatah accused Hamas of fanning the flames of protest and warned its forces to prevent any harm to members of the PA security forces or to property.

Ashtaya’s family also condemned his arrest, claiming that the PA security forces set him a trap and assaulted him during his arrest. The family denied the claim that Ashtaya surrendered, and demanded that the PA inform them of his condition. The Palestinians reported that Ashtaya opened fire first on the forces that came to arrest him, but stopped shooting when he realized the forces were from the PA.

Representatives of the Palestinian factions in Gaza also condemned the arrest of the wanted men in Nablus. They released a statement saying that they “condemn the violence from the PA forces toward the Palestinian civilian population and call for the immediate release of all the detainees, including the two wanted men.”

A Palestinian protester shouts slogans during a demonstration against the Palestinian Authority security forces following the arrest of two members of Hamas in the West Bank city of Nablus, Tuesday.Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP

A commercial fair that was to have opened Tuesday and last a few days was canceled because of the violence. Yet the merchants’ desire to hold the fair might pressure the sides into calming things down. Merchants from Nablus were able to prevent an eruption of violence after the killing of Nabulsi, citing the wish to encourage commerce in the city. The anticipated speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the UN General Assembly on Friday could help bring calm, because of the PA’s intent to bring foreign attention to the speech and not to clashes in Nablus.

Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, who is with the PA president in New York, issued a call for unity, “especially at this sensitive time, and not to be dragged after a foreign agenda by those who want to hurt the ties among the Palestinian people.”

Abu Rudeineh said Abbas “was strict about preventing bloodshed among Palestinians and about the need to maintain public order and personal security in the Palestinian street, and bears general responsibility toward the Palestinian civilian population.” The real goal, the spokesman added, “was against the occupation – the liberation of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

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