Hugh Naylor
The National
July 18, 2011 - 12:00am

NABLUS // The job of heading off clashes between Palestinians and Jewish settlers on the outskirts of this venerable West Bank city falls to a small number of employees of the Palestinian Authority's housing and village affairs unit. Two, to be exact.

For more than five years, Ghassan Doughlas and his assistant Khader Oweis have toiled to devise ways to support outlying Palestinian villages that bear the brunt of violence from neighbouring Jewish settlements.

Security for most of the 60 villages surrounding Nablus is technically the responsiblity of the Israeli military but, in fact, it does little to protect Palestinians from attacks by Jewish settlers. That leaves Mr Doughlas and Mr Oweis as jacks-of-all-trades - troubleshooters, peacemakers, fundraisers - as they attempt to stem what Palestinian officials describe as a mushrooming number of clashes between settlers and Palestinians.

Together the men form a flimsy bulwark against the rising tide of violence.

"You could make a thriller movie about what we see here on a daily basis," said Mr Doughlas, 39 who often finds himself consoling Palestinian families of loved ones beaten, or even killed, during the clashes.

Last month, there were 193 incidents of West Bank settler violence, as well as land confiscations and building demolitions by Israel's military, according to statistics released by the PA, which added that these "attacks are so frequent that the Israeli authorities must be able to take action if they choose to".

Even Israeli officials appear to be alarmed by settler anger, which in recent months has expanded to target the Israeli military for its role in occasionally dismantling outposts - the rough-hewn encampments that settlers establish as a beachhead for larger, more formal settlements.

Rightwing settlers from Yitzhar, near Nablus, recently set fire to the car of Israel's West Bank military commander, Brigadier General Nitzan Alon. They have also picketed in front of his home, prompting Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barack, to condemn the intimidation as "a scandal".

However, it is the unpunished brutality against against Palestinians by both settlers and Israeli soldiers that consumes the days of Mr Doughlas and Mr Oweis. They raise funds to buy CCTV cameras that villagers install on homes and shops to monitor settler attacks. They arrange compensation for Palestinians who are wounded in settler attacks or whose property is damaged.

They also work to dissuade aggrieved Palestinians, sometimes unsuccessfully, from resorting to violence. In the process, they sometimes are targets of it themselves.

"The settlers know my face, they know who I am," said Mr Doughlas, 39, who has had to fend off his share of threats and barrages of stones hurled from settlers.

Their ramshackle office in downtown Nablus resembles a majlis, where Palestinians lodge complaints against olive-tree groves burnt by settlers, torched mosques, vandalised vehicles and armed clashes.

On a recent day, hectic crowds stormed their office to decry such abuses. Human-rights researchers turned up to record statistics on settler attacks. The two men even had to play hosts to an emergency meeting with Nablus's governor, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority and other local politicians about a village riot that erupted earlier that day over water shortages in a nearby village.

"This is my life everyday - no holidays for me," said Mr Doughlas, as a group of men waved complaint forms in his face.

One man, Ahmed Adweikat, 41, from the nearby village of Rujib, came seeking compensation for the settlers who he said had set aflame 70 of his olive trees last month. He said he was afraid to approach the Israeli military with his complaint and request of compensation. He, like most others, prefers to lodge grievances against Israel with Mr Doughlas.

"The [Israeli] army is always on the settlers' side," said Mr Adweikat. "They tell us not to complain; otherwise they'll blindfold and beat us if we do."

Mr Doughlas, he said, "at least tries to help us."

Increasingly, Mr Doughlas and Mr Oweis seem to be concentrating more on containing rising Palestinian frustrations with the PA itself, fuelled by popular uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world and the stalemated Israel-Palestinian peace process.

"We are doing our best to help the people keep their complaints peaceful," said Mr Oweis, 43 But he said he feared that his work was seen by local residents as more about the PA controlling their behaviour than helping them resolve their grievances.

"We're the middle men between the PA and the people, and we're trying to stop another intifada," he said.

His concerns were on full display that afternoon. He and Mr Doughlas were called to mediate a peaceful end to a riot that erupted over water rationing imposed by the PA on a cluster of villages.

At the entrance of a Palestinian Water Authority depot, a group of two-dozen men had set fire to tyres, sending fingers of black smoke billowing into the sky.

Mr Douglas squeezed his way into the middle of the mob, announcing over derisive shouts: "This is my country, too, people. I feel and understand you."

After 15 minutes of shouting and hand-wringing, the group eventually doused their burning tyres and went home hoping that Mr Doughlas' promise of a speedy solution would materialise.

Returning to his office, a tired Mr Doughlas said: "We've had two intifadas, and we saw what happened to our people. We can't have another."


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