NABLUS, West Bank - Two dozen gunmen shooting in the air disrupted high school final exams in this West Bank city on Saturday after education officials rejected their demand to be allowed to take the tests in a separate room.
The gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, insisted on taking the test in a separate room, citing security concerns. Many of the armed men are wanted by Israel.
Education officials had refused to grant them special treatment, apparently fearing widespread cheating if the gunmen were allowed to take the exams separately. The gunmen forced some 550 students in two rooms to delay their tests for several hours.
In the end, the gunmen agreed to take the finals along with the other students. However, there appeared to be cheating; some used cell phones and books in the tests which are usually strictly monitored.
One of the regular students, Ramzi Saada, 25, said he was upset about the delay.
"Gunmen came and closed the exam halls," he said. "I saw many security forces there, but they didn't do anything. I have a right to take my test safely."
One of the gunmen, his M-16 assault rifle by his side, said he took the exams at the urging of his girlfriend.
Another, Abdel Qader Zakout, 22, checked his weapon at the door. He said he came close to getting killed by Israeli troops last week, but was determined to get his high school diploma.
Nablus is a stronghold of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Abbas has pledged in recent weeks to disarm all militias, but Al Aqsa gunmen have said they will not hand over their weapons. City residents have complained repeatedly about the rule of the gunmen, some of whom use their weapons for personal vendettas.
Many of the gunmen are dropouts. Obtaining a high school diploma would mean a higher rank and salary if, as Abbas has promised, he would recruit them into the Palestinian security forces under an amnesty deal with Israel.
In all, about 250 gunmen in Nablus have applied to take the high school finals.