RAMALLAH - A loud siren wails in the main street of Ramallah as the ambulance races to the nearby hospital. The casualty inside the vehicle is a teenage Palestinian who received two bullets to his chest during clashes among rival armed militia.
In a separate incident, a number of disgruntled armed young men showered the Daraghmeh store with scores of bullets in Ramallah’s commercial district. The fire engulfed the store’s interior, resulting in losses totaling USD 450,000.
At the entrance of a well-established restaurant in the city, a big sign reads “No hand guns allowed on the premises.”
As ammunition is readily available through black market middlemen, the sounds of bullets are heard frequently across the city. In a Pavlovian response, the citizens of Ramallah run into hiding as soon as the bullets start flying, their daily life controlled by the will of the gunmen.
“The current situation in the territories is very unstable, especially with the recent outbreaks of armed clashes between the factions, and the spread of weapons without any regulation only makes the situation worse and causes overall social unrest,” says Amal, a 25-year-old girl living in Ramallah.
These weapons have led to the current state of chaos, while leaving national interests to implode in internal recrimination and violence, she adds.
Palestinians believe Israel is behind the buildup of arms in the West Bank and Gaza. It benefits from the internal crisis as it allows settlement and separation barrier work to progress more easily, said an officer from the General Intelligence Forces.
'You can buy a Kalashnikov for USD 1,500'
“In the West Bank, the weapon pipeline is the Israeli gangs. They sell their weapons to Palestinian counterparts, who in return sell them to armed groups and private customers,” the officer says.
The Israeli army spokesman replies that “this accusation is baseless.” Israel has expressed its concerns over the issue of weapon smuggling several times during meetings with Palestinian officials, he adds.
Selling weapons in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is an extremely lucrative business, because of the amount of cash they generate.
“This business is flourishing due to internal clashes; it’s simply a matter of supply and demand,” says Hamdi Al- Ashgar, owner of a jewelry store in the middle of the Gaza Strip.
“To purchase a weapon, all one has to show is interest. Arms merchants are ready to provide you with whatever you want: M16s, hunting rifles, bullets, Kalashnikovs, mortars and spare parts,” Al-Ashgar adds.”
Prices have gone down and nowadays owning a gun in the Palestinian areas is not anymore the sole privilege of the armed groups.
“You can have the famous Kalashnikov for USD 1,500, and a Chinese-made rifle for USD 1,000. While digging a tunnel in Gaza costs USD 100,000, renting one could climb up to USD 10,000 per a day,” Ashgar says.
In the Gaza Strip, nearly four out of five people are armed, whereas in the West Bank two out of five are armed with different kind of rifles and pistols, according to an officer of the Preventive Security Forces, on condition of anonymity.
'Police are paralyzed'
Illegal arms have only fueled anarchy in the Palestinian areas, he adds.
Muhammad is a young journalist working for a local radio station affiliated with Fatah. In recent weeks, he's gotten several death threats.
"In a place like Gaza, that sort of menace isn't to be taken lightly, so the station's security guards and staff are armed with hand grenades and machine guns.”
Muhammad says he carries a handgun and keeps an AK-47 assault rifle at home.
“In such a lawless context, it's normal for journalists to carry guns," he explains. "Some accuse us of pouring gasoline on the fire and fueling the confrontations between Fatah and Hamas. But I am broadcasting the problems of my society and the Palestinian street.”
In Gaza, the arms are coming from all over the world, being transported through the desert to Egypt and to Gaza through the tunnels in Rafah.
After the Israelis pulled out from the Gaza Strip, the number of tunnels for smuggling weapons and other contraband has more than doubled, evolving into an underground maze clawed out of Gaza’s soft soil.
The largely unhindered weapons influx also heightens the threat of civil war, instability, and tribalism.
There are usually about 20 tunnels in use at any one time along the border.
"Many tunnels are never discovered," admits an officer, from the Third Southern Battalion of the Palestinian National Security Forces in the Gaza Strip, who also asks not to be named. "We only catch diggers or tunnel owners when one of them or a family member breaks the secret."
The Israeli Defense Forces used to discover these tunnels through its own intelligence sources and either bombed them, or passed the information to the Palestinian side, which would immediately destroy the tunnel and catch the diggers, the officer adds.
Recently, the secret underground business has been flourishing in Rafah. Israel is turning a blind eye to allow more weapons into Gaza to fuel the internal internecine infighting between Fatah and Hamas, he says.
The Palestinian Authority is reluctant to move against tunnel-diggers and weapons merchants to avoid likely fierce confrontations with tribesmen in the southern Gaza Strip.
“The Palestinian police are paralyzed and those who sell these weapons are groups related to powerful tribes. They are also linked to factions and militias which provide them with protection and support for their trade,” the office explains.
Reprinted by permission of The Media Line