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Private gun ownership soars in West Bank

Crime rates are rising in the West Bank, where illegal weapons are turning family feuds deadly.
Palestinians cover their ears as a masked man fires a volley from his rifle, during the funeral of Dalia Ahmed Suleiman Samudi, 23, in Jenin city in the occupied West Bank on August 7, 2020, who was killed by Israeli fire during clashes. - Samudi died of a gunshot wound after being shot near the site of clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian officials said. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP) (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights issued a warning Aug. 23 about an armament race between Palestinian families in the West Bank provoked by “their feeling of insecurity, weakness and lack of protection.”

Only the Palestinian security apparatus is allowed to own arms in the West Bank, according to the Oslo Accords. Nevertheless, Ammar Duweik, director general of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor, “Weapons are widely spreading among families in the [West Bank] areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority and under the protection of influential PA or Fatah figures.”

He noted that the increasing presence of arms is visible in the rising crime in the West Bank. He said, "The commission has documented 33 murders, most of them using firearms, since the beginning of 2020, recording a 40% increase compared to 2019.”

Since the beginning of 2020, cities and camps in the West Bank have been the scenes of family feuds during which arms were widely used. The fighting resulted in deaths and injuries and reveal the Palestinian security apparatus' inability to control the proliferation of arms in the West Bank.

Duweik said that “leniency” and protection by some parties and figures he did not name contributed to the private ownership and carrying of weapons despite the Firearms and Ammunition Law No. 2 of 1998. Article 14 states, “It shall be prohibited to carry firearms in public areas, conferences, meetings, parties or weddings. It shall be prohibited to carry firearms while protesting.”

Duweik said, “Unfortunately, this text is not in force, and we see people at many social events carrying weapons, which endangers them and others.” He said, “It is difficult to limit the proliferation of arms in the West Bank because many carry arms clandestinely and illegally.”

He said, “It is dangerous for society to engage in a race for arms possession,” adding that it is the responsibility of the Palestinian security apparatus to maintain arms control and dry up the sources of illegal weapons, but noted that doing so requires “political will.”

There is no official data available on the source of these weapons, but activists like Duweik accuse Israel of facilitating their entry into the West Ban to spread chaos. He said, “After all, the risk affects Palestinian society not Israel.”

Al-Monitor tried to contact security officials in the West Bank for comment on arms proliferation, but did not receive a response.

However, an official in the Palestinian Military Judicial Commission told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the Palestinian security apparatus is failing to control arms proliferation in the West Bank. “Some members are even covering it up,” he said.

The official said, “We might reach a point where the arms are directed against us," warning that failing to control these arms will result in chaos that could threaten public security in the West Bank.

Jihad Harb, a researcher on governance and political issues at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, warned that arms proliferation harms the PA’s ability to govern the West Bank. He said, “Arms proliferation limits the PA’s ability to defend not only citizens, but also itself.”

He told Al-Monitor, “Under the tough economic circumstances, armed groups might surface to commit organized crime or to settle family problems or feuds. This will only worsen the chaos in the West Bank.”

He noted that there are concerns about chaos spreading after President Mahmoud Abbas leaves office due to a “lack of mechanisms to ensure democratic transition with the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council."

Abbas began his 15th year as PA president in January and some doubt he will complete his term as his health is unstable. He was repeatedly admitted to the hospital to receive treatment and undergo medical examinations this year.

Harb noted, “The transition process will become difficult constitutionally, and an armed fight between groups or ruling leaders in the West Bank might erupt.” He said that the best way to address the danger is to hold elections.

Harb did not deny “possible concerns” about Israel having a hand in the weapons proliferation in the West Bank because “Israel wants to stir internal chaos to distract Palestinians from the main conflict with it and to show that Palestinians are not worthy of a state.”

Khalil Assaf is the head of the Consortium of Independent Palestinians, a grassroots organization of businessmen and academics, and deputy head of the Public Freedoms Committee ensuing from the 2011 Cairo Agreement. He told Al-Monitor, “Weapons are openly carried without the existence of any national goals.” He also said that Israel is feeding weapons proliferation in the West Bank, concluding, “Why aren’t people carrying arms being pursued and why isn’t Palestinian society being cleaned of this phenomenon? Why this silence on this dirty issue?”

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