The stolen Volkswagen truck roared along the chaotic main street of Nablus. As Kamel Salameh wove the VW through the morning rush-hour traffic, he slammed into nine-year-old Islam Atallah. She spun off the hood like a doll, dead. With screaming tires, Salameh turned his truck and sped off. He headed for Balata refugee camp at the edge of Nablus. The patrolmen chasing him were nervous. The camp is a no-go area for Yasser Arafat's police. Salameh swerved into Balata's narrow streets and disappeared. Soon after, the police found the truck abandoned, but Salameh had melted into the alleys of his home patch. Car theft is big business in Balata, so police were not completely disappointed. They found a dozen other stolen vehicles at the edge of the camp and impounded them.
That afternoon, back at the police station, the officers heard gunfire. It was Balata's answer to the lawmen's incursion. Forty stolen cars rolled slowly out of the camp, each loaded with car thieves firing rifles in the air. Behind them walked hundreds of Balata residents. The criminals drowned the police station and the municipality in the deafening racket of their Kalashnikovs. The people of Nablus fled in fear, and their rulers--the mayor appointed by Arafat, the police chief, the Governor--all got the message: Back off. "Every day there's a fight between someone from Balata and a Nablus guy," says Hussam Khader, 39, the reform-minded leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party in Balata. "It's something we've never known before."
In Balata's narrow streets, the chaotic traffic writhes slowly and fractiously between the cinder-block auto shops in the simmering heat of spring on the valley floor. More than 800 feet above the dusty camp, on the lush peak of Mount Gerizim, a monumental structure is rising, half Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, half Taj Mahal. It is the new home of a leading member of the Masri family, the most powerful and wealthy clan in Nablus. It is a reminder, too, of the differences between the unruly refugee camp and the Palestinian metropolis in the West Bank, and a symbol of the extreme tensions that exist within Palestinian society, riven these days between rich and poor, Christian and Muslim and dozens of other fractures. Even as Arafat struggled last week to deliver on his promise of a cease-fire, controlling anti-Israeli violence promises to be difficult because it also means trying to manage the divisions among Palestinians. It means trying to exert control in a land where impatience, fury and frustration conspire to divide instead of unify.
Down in the fifth of a square mile that is Balata, it is not venerated old families like the Masris who rule. The graffiti on the walls mark the territories of clan-based gangs like the Dan-Dan, or personal militias who owe their allegiance to local leaders with nicknames like Baz-Baz. Among the 30,000 residents of the camp, 65% of workers are unemployed, up from 25% before the Aqsa intifadeh kicked off eight months ago. It is estimated that there are 5,000 guns in the camp.