Not another day in Nablus
Graham Usher visits Nablus, a city under permanent Israeli siege and teetering on the brink of internal collapse
An Apache helicopter hovers in a blue sky, pummelling missiles into a mountain. Beneath -- in the pit of the city -- dozens of Palestinians swarm around a hospital, among them militiamen. Two children, hand in hand, play cat and mouse with a passing Jeep, and are fired at through swirls of dust. Elsewhere Nablus is a desolation of rock-strewn barricades, blasted Palestinian police stations and shuttered stores, closed in protest, locked down in fear.
It is noon, Wednesday, 15 September. A few hours before the Israeli army had invaded the outskirts of the Old City, hunting for Nader Al-Aswad, a leader in Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB). Incessant barrages of rockets wrinkled him and four others out of their hideout in a weed- infested Christian cemetery. They were tracked to a home where they were killed at "close range from bullets to the head", said Samir Abu Sorour, director at Nablus's Rafidia hospital. An 11-year-old girl, Maryam Nakleh, was shot dead on her roof while watching ambulances trying (and failing) to retrieve the corpses.
This was not just another day in Nablus. Even by its bloody annals the killing of five young men and child (and wounding of 30 others) could not pass without rage and mourning, as the mass funerals demonstrated. But the grief soon dissolved amid the fine print of the latest Intifada statistics. In September some 53 Palestinians have so far been killed, many of them civilians, six of them children, with a large chunk from Nablus: in August 44 were slain.
Nablus was once the commercial hub of the northern West Bank and pillar of Palestinian nationalism. Since the Intifada erupted in September 2000, nearly 450 of its people have been killed, 100 of them children. Over 7,000 of its residences, public buildings and Palestinian Authority offices have been destroyed or damaged. The unemployment rate is 50 per cent, amongst the highest in the West Bank; poverty is higher.
The fundamental cause of this destruction is the occupation, with Israel relentlessly hammering Nablus as the heart of the West Bank Palestinian resistance and "factory" for suicide bombers. It has been accomplished not only by the tidal army raids, arrests and assassinations but also by a ruthless military siege, imposed by five permanent checkpoints and three semi-permanent ones that control all access and egress from the city. But there are other causes.
Two nights before the Israeli raid 100 or so AMB militiamen torched the home of Hamad Hajat, a PA police officer. It was revenge for Hajat's slaying of one their men, they said. Hajat is in hiding, his family has fled to Jordan and his home is a blackened husk. At the time of the attack, a hundred or so of Nablus's 4,000 policemen stood on the road opposite the house. As soon as the first explosive charge was lit, "they melted away", says Aboud Ateer, a witness.
"The PA only exists nominally in Nablus," says Ghassan Shakaa, former Nablus mayor who resigned in April in protest against the lawlessness in the city and the PA's reluctance to do anything about it. Last November his brother was killed in a drive by shooting most believed was intended for him. The killer is known and belongs to one or the Fatah militias in the city. He hasn't been arrested. "It's like what happened to Nabil Amr (a PA law-maker shot in Ramallah in July). Nobody in the PA wants to know who shot him. Instead we blame the Israelis."
Shakaa says that with the collapse of the PA the militias are becoming younger, bolder, more popular and more dangerous. Some are nationalist ("though mistaken in their way: I think the armed Intifada is a disaster. We should confine our resistance to the Palestinian areas"). But most are young guns hired by this or that PA chieftain or "outside powers like Syria, Iran and Hizbullah", he says. "Some in Ramallah are using the militias to increase their power in Nablus. Syria has another agenda. It wants Palestine to be like Lebanon -- in its pocket".
What binds the gunmen is that all are or were Fatah. Hamas and Jihad militias exist in Nablus but are not involved in wars of turf and power. They are underground and save their arms for the Israelis. "They are disciplined and organised. Their base is the middle-class. Fatah's base is the poor," says an aide to the ex-mayor.
For this reason Shakaa believes the PA could reverse the drift in Nablus. It is a matter of will. "Yasser Arafat could change the situation. He could give specific orders. And were he allowed to come to Nablus his presence would rally most of the Fatah militias behind him and isolate the few who are opposed to him. But he won't act as long as he is under siege. He won't issue a decision. It's his way of proving his indispensability."
Short of presidential intervention, is there any other exit? "Elections are crucial for the Palestinian people," says Shakaa. "But with this chaos, in this atmosphere, how can there be democratic elections?"
It is a common view. Since the PA's Central Election Commission (CEC) began voter registration for PA elections on 4 September, only seven per cent have registered in Nablus: in certain neighbourhoods the rate is three.
One reason is the sheer difficulty of organising elections given the martial realities that rule the city. Palestinians from villages often cannot reach registration offices due to the facts of an incursion, curfew or earth blockade. Election officials cannot reach villages for want of an Israeli permit.
But the main cause for the low Palestinian registration is a dull, enervating belief that elections either won't happen or have come too late to change anything. The apathy is "a kind of protest against the PA", says Shakaa, who will stand for parliament but "never again" for the municipality. He has not registered as a voter or candidate.
The one exception to this torpor is Hamas and a handful of Palestinian political parties or civic associations. Imams at Hamas- allied mosques are urging their congregations to get out and vote. Over the posters of martyrs that cover every wall and shop window in Nablus there is freshly daubed graffiti. "Fellow citizenship, Reform!" it reads. "If you want change you must register." The signatory is the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.
It is easy to understand the zeal. Polls show Hamas running neck and neck with Fatah throughout the occupied territories. In Gaza, it is the most popular faction. In Nablus Islamist blocs control Al- Najah University and several professional associations. The Hamas leadership has already decided to contest the municipal elections and -- say Hamas sources -- are on the verge of declaring for the parliamentary ones, though perhaps as an Islamic List rather than in name.
"We see the elections as an opportunity to show the Palestinians a different model of governance," says one Hamas man. But Hamas won't contest the presidency. "In these circumstances we understand Arafat is or should be irreplaceable," he smiles.
How would Hamas do in Nablus? "It would win -- no question," says Shakaa.