RAMALLAH, West Bank -- When Palestinian activists rallied last month in support of their president, Yasser Arafat, the marchers included a band of masked gunmen brandishing assault rifles.
Israeli officials didn't need a secret intelligence report to inform them about the rally or the suspected illegal weapons. They simply bought an issue of the Palestinian newspaper, Al-Hayat Al Jadida, and identified the Kalishnikovs, M16s and Uzis in the rally photographs.
The proliferation of weapons in West Bank cities and towns controlled by the Palestinian Authority is a growing concern of Israel's military intelligence community. The Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, including the agreement signed Sept. 4 in Egypt, requires the Palestinians to confiscate illegal weapons. By most accounts, the Palestinians have done little to seize such arms. Commenting on the Aug. 6 rally in Ramallah, a high-ranking Israeli military official noted, "I didn't see anybody trying to confiscate these arms from people who were walking in the street shooting them."
In weeks to come, the Palestinians will have to begin confiscating illegal weapons under the latest peace deal signed with the Israelis. (On Oct. 15, they are to report to the Israelis on the effort). The number of illegal weapons is hard to quantify. Israeli defense officials put the number of illegal weapons on the West Bank at "tens of thousands," but they offer no documentation.
Under the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the Palestinian police force was permitted 15,240 rifles, pistols and machine guns. The police force exceeds by 10,000 its authorized strength as proscribed under the Oslo accords. That might account for some of the illegal weapons. Then there are the guns held by Arafat's political faction, Fatah, those smuggled into the territories, and family-owned guns.
A top Fatah leader characterized as "some hundreds" the number of illegal weapons in circulation on the West Bank. But disarming the young men of Fatah might not be easy, despite their support of Arafat and the Oslo peace process.
"It's not the time to take the guns from people, for political reasons," said Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian lawmaker and the leader of the Fatah movement on the West Bank. "The [political] opposition doesn't feel the struggle is over. They are saying, if Israel returns back tomorrow, who will fight?"
For many young Palestinians, a gun represents a hedge against Israeli aggression. It signifies strength in the face of occupying forces that remain on the West Bank. It symbolizes sovereign power.
"It's a message for the other side," said Husam Shahine, a leader of the Fatah youth movement in East Jerusalem, "that we still believe in our own struggle."
The youngsters who lobbed stones at Israeli soldiers during the 1987-1993 street uprising known as the intifada are adults today. Many belong to the Fatah camp. They know where to buy guns on the black market. They can quote the prices -- in dollars and Jordanian dinars -- of a Belgium revolver (about $650) and an M16 rifle ($2,000). They chafe at the reality that Jewish settlers can carry a gun and they cannot.
"This is the generation thirsty for the guns," said Barghouti, the Palestinian lawmaker, "not my generation."
As in many societies, guns are a cultural signifier among Palestinians. Palestinians usually celebrate a marriage or some other important occasion with a gunfire salute. Barghouti, the Fatah leader on the West Bank, has been welcomed to a meeting of supporters with the sound of automatic gunfire. He said he asked followers to stop the practice.
Barghouti said younger associates have pressured him to wear a gun, because it symbolizes strength. He said he refused. But his Fatah movement, with the Palestinian Authority, is training young Palestinians how to use guns.
"The aim of the training, as we see it, is we are still in the middle of the struggle," said Barghouti, who served time in Israeli jails for his political activities during the occupation. " ... So I think it's our duty to train people."
On its Internet page, Fatah professes to guard the Palestinian dream of an independent state. It says yes to a just and lasting peace, but it says "no to collecting the weapons from citizens who are still subject to Israeli aggression."
The Fatah youth from the intifada years are looking to create "new ways of resistance" to free themselves of the occupation. But they also are engaged in building an educated and enlightened society, they say. The Fatah youth movement recently held elections for district leaders and governing committees. Their aim is to build a civil society, bolster state institutions and serve the people, several leaders said.
"This is what must be," said Fahmi Zaari, a Fatah leader from Hebron. "In [most] of the world, the police and the army are governed by politics, not politics being governed by the army."
"We have seen how others are living quietly in a civil society without guns," added Yasir Arafat, a Fatah youth leader from East Jerusalem (who is not related to the Palestinian leader).
The Fatah youth leaders who were interviewed believe, perhaps naively, that once they have a state, the government will be able to control the trade in illegal weapons. They say they have begun educating members on the dangers of firing guns at celebrations and suggesting peaceful solutions to problems.
"If we have an independent country, respected by the whole world, it will be so easy to confiscate guns from the whole society and register them," said Zaari.
Israelis aren't the only ones concerned about weapons in the Palestinian territories. A leading Palestinian human rights group has begun recording the number of deaths caused by the misuse of police weapons or the use of illegal guns.
The tally -- 26 in the first seven months of this year -- might seem small in a population of 1.7 million. But the human rights activists want the Palestinian Authority to control access to guns and punish security forces who abuse the privilege of carrying a gun.
"It's what makes a civil society a civil society as opposed to a militarized society," said Reese Johnson, a spokesman for the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment.
As part of the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was to monitor the Palestinian Authority's confiscation of illegal weapons. The United States, the broker of the Middle East peace accords, provides no statistics, referring to its policy against discussing intelligence matters.
Palestinian officials maintain that they are living up to their obligations under the peace agreements. When asked how many illegal weapons the authority had confiscated, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat professed not to know. He suggested asking the CIA.
Kamal Al-Sheikh, chief of police in the Ramallah district, said police identify gun owners, require them to register their weapons and, with the security forces' approval, issue them one-year permits.
In Ramallah, police have registered 51 guns for business owners and 166 for individuals, mostly hunting guns, Al-Sheikh said.
Those numbers do not include the guns held by the Fatah political group, but Al-Sheikh said, "All Fatah guns are under control and are in storage. We know where they are."
He said the Palestinian security forces search for unregistered weapons. "Always, they are confiscated," he said, but he could provide no numbers.
Most of the illegal guns enter the West Bank with smugglers, according to Palestinians and Israelis who were interviewed. But the Palestinians say the guns originate in Israel. Israeli military officials say the guns are smuggled from outside the area and point to recent discoveries of secret tunnels at the Egyptian-Gaza Strip border.
During a routine patrol of the Dead Sea off Israel last year, Israeli soldiers uncovered a cache of illegal weapons in two motor boats. They confiscated 60 Kalishnikov rifles (with Arabic writing on their sides), 7 hunting guns and 38 other weapons, plus a load of ammunition. They arrested one Palestinian man.
Most of the smugglers are Palestinians or Bedouins, said Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Harel, the commander in the Jordan Valley at the time of the Dead Sea bust. Sometimes the smugglers work with Israeli criminals, but more often Palestinian groups are involved, he said.
"The smuggling, though it's very hard, the profit is so high, it's very attractive," Harel said. "The problem is that the Israel Defense Forces found that the [Palestinian Authority] does not prevent smuggling. It's not just that they don't fight the smuggling, it's part of the PA activity to get these weapons. They don't even collect illegal weapons. From a philosophical view, smuggling weapons is something that will help the coming state."
But Al-Sheikh, the Palestinian police chief, and others say that to control the guns and weapons market, one must be able to control the borders. Israel maintains control of the borders, even in areas adjacent to Palestinian-controlled territory.
"Nobody on Earth, who is the head of a police department, can say illegal weapons [are] under control, if he respects himself," Al-Sheikh said.
Ann LoLordo covers the Middle East for The Sun.