Uncertainty fuels jump in West Bank gun prices

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HEBRON, West Bank, Oct 17 (Reuters) Two years ago, an M16 automatic rifle could fetch 5,400 dollar or more in the Palestinian West Bank.

Now buyers at Hebron's clandestine gun market are asked to pay more than double.

Four months after Islamist Hamas routed secular Fatah in the Gaza Strip, fears that clashes between the Palestinian rivals could erupt in the West Bank and uncertainty ahead of a US-led peace conference are fuelling a scramble for guns.

Dealers at the gun market in Hebron, the West Bank's most populous city, say weapons sales have jumped by up to 70 per cent since Hamas took control of Gaza, while buoyant demand and supply bottlenecks due to tighter security have inflated prices.

In the northern West Bank city of Jenin, every bullet for an AK-47 rifle costs 35 Israeli shekels, or more than 8 dollar. In Hamas-controlled Gaza, an AK-47 bullet goes for 4-6 Israeli shekels, 1-1.50 dollar.

Militants from both Hamas and Fatah, and the powerful family clans who are often called in to deal with West Bank crime or land disputes, are driving the market, according to gun dealers and senior Palestinian security sources.

But ordinary West Bankers, too, are taking no risks.

''I don't feel safe anymore,'' said 28-year-old Abo Abdo, who sold his car this month to buy a rifle to protect his wife and two children. ''Everyone is buying guns.'' RISING TENSION Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah sacked a Hamas-led government and appointed a Fatah-backed administration in June after the Islamist group seized control of Gaza.

Tensions between the factions in Gaza have increased sharply in recent weeks and some West Bankers are worried the conflict could spread.

While a repeat of Gaza-style street fighting in the West Bank is highly unlikely given Israel's military presence there and strong opposition to Hamas, Fatah-led security forces are taking steps to head off any uprising.

Security forces have rounded up and jailed hundreds of Hamas supporters, tried to ban Hamas rallies in the West Bank and launched a crackdown on the Islamic charities that helped fuel Hamas's rise to power.

Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied Hamas was marshalling its forces in the West Bank, but some Hamas leaders have said the Islamist group could stir dissent if Abbas continues his crackdown.

Failure by Abbas to make progress toward Palestinian statehood at a November US-sponsored summit could empower Hamas and stoke West Bank tensions, say some commentators.

''If the international conference fails, Hamas will try to present itself as an alternative, arguing Abbas is too weak to build any future state,'' Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri said.

DISTRUST Since the Gaza takeover, Western powers have started pumping cash into the West Bank in an attempt to bolster Abbas and further isolate Hamas in Gaza, and are training police and security forces loyal to the Fatah-backed administration.

But despite the drive to support him, many Palestinians doubt Abbas has the clout to keep the peace.

''We are facing a very grave situation,'' a Palestinian security source said. ''People distrust the Palestinian police.

They are buying guns to defend themselves.'' Hebron restaurant owner Salam Shabanah is a case in point. He wants guns to protect his property, but says the scramble by militants and family clans for guns is inflating prices to the point he can barely afford them.

''The money I am saving is not enough to buy the guns I need,'' he said.

Reuters RN RS0913

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