Whether it is the now ubiquitous sight of young men clutching Kalashnikov’s and casually perusing through Gaza’s crowded streets, or petty family feuds turns deadly with angry members of both parties taking matters into their own hands, more and more, people are beginning to ask, “Who exactly is in charge here?”
Just last month, a man broke into Gaza’s main prison, stormed past police guards, and killed the accused murderer of his brother, who was convicted and sentenced to death by the State Security Court last year. His execution was awaiting ratification by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat.
According to Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), this is not the first time an individual has been attacked while in the custody of the Palestinian Authority.
A similar crime was committed in the West Bank city of Jenin in May 2002 in which a number of gunmen attacked a session of the State Security Court and shot dead three individuals after they were convicted of murder.
Moreover, several incidents of vigilantism were reported in Gaza last year to the deference and oftentimes active participation of security officials, leaving tens of people dead.
PCHR says it is unaware of a Palestinian Authority investigation into any of these incidents.
Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, are increasingly becoming accustomed to such rampant lawlessness. Save for the newly uniformed police officers monitoring traffic in Gaza’s busy intersections-a vestige of the short-lived Mahmud Abbas government - there is no sign of any governmental presence here.
“Everyone makes their own law nowadays, they are their own authority,” said resident of the poverty-stricken Hamas stronghold Sabra quarter of Gaza city, Abu Wisam.
Newspapers and opposition groups blame the ineffectiveness of the Ahmad Quraya government, of which there has been mounting criticism in recent weeks. The Prime Minister has failed to take action on both the political and social fronts, they say.
“Until now [the Quraya government] has not taken one decision and the [Palestinian] citizen does not feel its presence,” said an editorial in the Hamas weekly, al-Risala.
“Despite the passing of three months since his placement as Prime Minister, close observers and lay citizens alike are beginning to feel the absence of the government.”
Legal analysts and members of both the judicial branch and legislative branches cite the ineffectiveness of the executive authority, and the absence of an independent judiciary, as the source of the problem.
“Without an independent judiciary, we cannot talk about the rule of law,” said Hamdi Shaqura, head of PCHR’s Democracy Development Unit. “Many judicial decisions are simply not respected.”
Shaqura noted several cases where the PA did not follow through with the Court’s decision that certain administrative detainees should be released.
“As a judicial branch we have no problem in doing our job, its only in executing the laws that we have a problem. If there is no effective executive [the law] is nothing more than ink on paper,” said Ali al-Farra, Judge of the Khan Yunis Central Court.
“We might pass a judgement that needs to be executed in the same instant…a group might be waiting to seek revenge and grab the defendant from between the police’s hands otherwise.”
“What’s happening is very dangerous right now. You cannot just have any lay person walking around with a Kalashnikov. Unfortunately, even the police are playing a role in this by turning a blind eye to such incidents and thus encouraging chaos,” he added.
But security officials in the PA say this is not the case, and that they are doing what they can to maintain order. New laws passed in the last year have further defined and restricted their role, making it obligatory for them to act within 48 hours of receiving a complaint, they say.
“We face no problem in implementing the law…any citizen that has a complaint simply need come to us and we deal with it immediately,” said Nahid Zari’i, Lieutenant in the Palestinian Police Force.
Zari’i blames the “tribal” mentality of Palestinian society for the increased lawlessness and spread of unlicensed weapons, not Palestinian police or the executive branch in the PA.
“They want us to create a modern legal system while we are still a tribal society, it won’t work,” he said.
Zari’i also notes that it is necessary to take into consideration the political situation, which has created what he refers to as a “deficiency” in the Palestinian authority.
“Abu Ammar is encircled in 400 metres in his Ramallah compound. How can he go help his people in Rafah, Khan Younis, and Gaza?” he said.
Like most other issues in Palestine these days, analysts agree that rule of law must be examined through the lens of the occupation in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the problem.
“The principle of rule of law does not work in a vacuum… the areas that the PA is working in are still under Israeli occupation… and this has affected them,” he said.
Criminal justice has suffered serious setbacks since the start of the Intifada due in no small part to the systematic targeting of Palestinian institutions. Prisons and police headquarters have been the heavily bombed, leaving little or no space in which to put prisoners and staff.
“It’s hard to speak about rule of law in the wake of a worn-out PA, and with Israelis destroying everything,” added Azmi Shuyabi, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and Secretary-General of AMAN-the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity.
Nevertheless, both Shuyabi and Shaqura say the impact of the occupation does not exonerate the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Police Force, or regular citizens from their legal duties.
“No one is preventing us from respecting the legislative and judicial branches, or from standing in line, getting things done without a wasta (personal favour), or having some semblance of organisation and transparency,” said Shuyabi.
Shuyabi blames the Palestinian leadership for failing to make the transition from a “resistance” movement to an administrative authority. Because the PLO developed in exile as a guerrilla movement not bound by or used to operating within the framework of the law, he says, much of its leadership continues to see the law as a threat to their livelihood.
“Until today there is no serious feeling on their part that the law is one of the main tools for an effective government, and that it tells people where their best interests are at,” said Shuyabi.
The structure of the Palestinian police force is another hurdle to overcome. According to Shuyabi, Palestinian police do not view themselves as independent from politics or from the Palestinian resistance.
“As long as we view security as something that is part of the PA, rather than as a tool with which to execute its authority, we will have a problem,” he said.
In the end, Shuyabi believes that the violation of the law is being encouraged indirectly by the PA’s own disrespect for the rule of law and by the absence of accountability.
“When people see that others are not being punished it gives others an incentive to break the law. In this Intifada, the individual who thinks he is strong on the street thinks he has the right to take the law into his own hands,” said Shuyabi, alluding to the factional street politics that have developed between former head of preventative security Muhammad Dahlan and Yasir Arafat loyalists in Gaza.
“This is a double edged sword: today it works for us, tomorrow it will work against us.”