NABLUS, Israeli-occupied West Bank -- Col. Nitzan Nuriel, the Israeli army commander in Nablus, was annoyed. He had enough to do, trying to keep his soldiers from being stoned and a hostile city quiet. Now an elusive outlaw named Ahmad Tabuk was gaining irritating fame by thumbing his nose at the authorities.
"I spend more nights watching for Tabuk than watching my wife," sighed the colonel. "Come back in 10 days. We will catch him."
That was two months ago. This week, as the Israeli army begins to leave Nablus, Tabuk still is free.
Free enough, in fact, to be a legend. Stories abound about how Tabuk vanishes in the Casbah, the alleys and stone buildings that are the oldest part of Nablus, just as Israeli forces are closing in on him; about how he and his gang fire their guns in the city center, daring soldiers to come get him; about how he snubs Palestinian bigwigs and carries out his style of justice by shooting wrongdoers in public.
"He's a hero to people here," said Bassem Adel, a Nablus merchant. "He fights drugs, and goes after the real bad people."
Tabuk is 30. He has three small children -- a boy and two girls. His family lives in the Casbah, but Tabuk is said never to sleep at home and is always on the move.
During the Palestinian "intifada," he helped start the local chapter of the Fatah Hawks, a violent branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He earned his reputation killing Palestinian collaborators. He has been arrested by the Israelis more than 20 times and has spent nearly nine years in prison.
After a stay of 28 years, Israeli troops are to leave Nablus by Dec. 17, under the peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But as as they begin their gradual withdrawal, and as Palestinian officers prepare to take their place, some wonder if Tabuk will answer to any authority.
Ask people in Nablus about Tabuk. They are startled, and then quickly look away. The fear shows. Don't know him, they say. Sorry, never seen the man. Please, don't ask.
At City Hall, the deputy mayor sends word through his secretary. Of course he will see a visitor -- to refuse would be against Arab hospitality. But he knows nothing about Ahmad Tabuk.
"I have heard the stories," concedes Adnan Derhalli, the deputy mayor. "Some people think he is some sort of Robin Hood. But this is ridiculous. He is a criminal, and he is taking the law into his own hands."
As with all legends, the stories are difficult to prove. How many people has Tabuk killed?
"He has murdered six persons," says Colonel Nuriel.
"He has killed seven," says one of Tabuk's men, Abu Abed.
"Two," says Bassem Eid, a human rights investigator.
Nabil Omar Fakher al-Din is proof that Tabuk does wield a gun. Tabuk shot him eight times in the feet and kneecaps. Mr. al-Din used to be a painter. Now he can only awkwardly waddle a few steps at a time.
He shows his wounds, scarlet round holes pocking his legs. But Mr. al-Din will not describe the event. "Tabuk came personally and asked him if he was talking to reporters," explains a brother. The threat was clear.
Nablus has been famed since biblical times for its olive oil. It still is surrounded by groves, but the city itself has grown into a blaring, jostling, gritty commercial center of 150,000.
Tabuk's lair is the oldest section of the city. The old Nablus Casbah closes in over a visitor, much like a forest. The alleys narrow, the crowded shops reach out.
Dresses? Pots or pans? Arabic sweets? Change money? The appeals come from all sides. The merchandise hangs overhead, closing out the sky. A hundred eyes watch.
A dozen twists and turns from the souk brings one to Tabuk's neighborhood. Political posters cover the walls, menacing signs drawn with fists and guns and filled with angry threats. This is Fatah Hawk territory. The solicitous merchants have given way to men sitting sullenly on stools.
"You had better move away, or you will be hurt," growls one man. A gun peeks from his belt. This is the right neighborhood.
Poke around enough, and Tabuk appears. He is intrigued at the audacity of a stranger trying to find him even after he sent word through lieutenants that he does not desire a meeting.
The stranger is quickly whisked into a safe-house, a bare concrete room with a single bed that appears to have been fitfully used.
Ashab Abu-Rabiha is there, Tabuk's right-hand man. He is short, muscular. He wears a necklace with a silver screaming hawk, and a 9 mm pistol in a holster. He is said to have killed seven people. He gets up to check the street often, and scowls at questions he doesn't like.
Tabuk himself is unadorned. He is a dark man, unshaven, with sunken cheeks, a scar above his right eye, and brown hair that curls oddly on top of his head like a crown. He smokes L&M;'s. It is a while before he smiles.
"We are not criminals," he says. "The people we punish are working against our society -- collaborators, drug dealers, homosexuals, thieves and moral offenders. We believe God sees us and knows what we are doing."
"People love me," he says. When the Israeli soldiers try to catch him, "I can ask anyone to hide me, and they do."
He insists he is a supporter of the Palestinian-Israeli peace pact. For that reason, he claims, he does not shoot Israeli soldiers, and he is puzzled that Israel wants to capture him.
To hear him tell it, Tabuk is simply trying to solve the problems of his people. He describes how he avenged a woman swindled out of her inheritance, how he resolved a feud between two clans, how he forgave a collaborator who repented.
He dismisses questions about being a one-man judge, jury and executioner.
"Everyone in Nablus knows who the good person is and who the bad person is." Besides, he says, he always extracts confessions before meting out punishment.
He will not allow his picture to be taken. He is modest, he says. But he offers a photo of his own: a grand portrait of himself standing with an automatic weapon. After two hours, he abruptly disappears.
If Tabuk has masters, they prefer to remain in the shadows. If he worked for a government, he would be the kind of operative that everyone would deny knowing.
Israel's critics say the Israelis never really wanted to capture him, as long as he did not harm Jews. In fact, Colonel Nuriel acknowledges later that his soldiers have given up the chase.
"We've decided not to take him. We'll leave him for the Palestinian police as a test for them," says the colonel.
But will the Palestinians arrest him? Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, has told the Israelis he considers Tabuk a criminal, according to Colonel Nuriel.
Jabril Rajoub, the strong-man head of the Palestinian Preventive Security, last August offered his "vehement abhorrence of Tabuk's deviant behavior."
But Mr. Rajoub's men in Nablus have a different view of Tabuk.
About 100 officers in plain clothes mill about a simple office, officially closed until Israel completes its withdrawal. Many of them are former Fatah Hawks, old pals of Tabuk.
"Ahmad Tabuk has a glorious history and he's still part of Fatah," says Ahmad Anabousi, director of the office.
"Don't be surprised to see Ahmad Tabuk become a member -- a leader -- of the Palestinian security services."