Nablus is a pleasing city, the most populous in the West Bank. A visitor is struck by the limestone dwellings on verdant mountainsides that surround the ancient town, first settled three millennia ago in the northern part of the West Bank. The city is now inhabited by nearly 200,000 Palestinians who are suffering badly from the Israeli occupation and the growing disintegration of their society.
Ghassan Shakah is the mayor of Nablus, a somewhat stout gentleman in his early sixties who studied law at the University of Alexandria and speaks perfect English. As a militant of the Palestine Liberation Organization, during the 1970s and 1980s he spent long periods in Israeli prisons where he lived on eggs. “Sometimes I was offered meat or fish, but it was rotten so I ate only eggs. For years after leaving jail I couldn’t face an egg.” Today as mayor he often meets with the Israeli commander of the Nablus district as he tries to relieve the misery of his people. The Israeli, he said, is “a colonel in a brown uniform but I don’t even know his name. He’s a nice guy, not at all arrogant, and he speaks perfect Arabic.” The mayor reconstructed for me a recent conversation he had had with the colonel:
Mayor: Our people are suffering terribly. You destroy our electricity and water systems, we repair them with German and Norwegian money, and you destroy them again. We can’t bear this collective punishment any longer.
Colonel: One third of the suicide bombings originate in Nablus. Yes, we’re hurting you, but we’ve no other way to stop the terror.
Mayor: You’ve destroyed our police stations, and we have no police and no courts. You never mention the cause of all the trouble—your cruel occupation.
Colonel: Stop the terror.
Mayor: But I told you, we have no police in the streets. You’ve forbidden them to wear uniforms or to carry guns.
Colonel: Oh, that is a policy issue, so I have nothing to say. The occupation is a political decision, so I have nothing to say. As a soldier, I am here to obey orders.
Mayor: You are not only destroying our houses, but our economy and our culture.
The Israeli army originally entered Nablus in April 2002, and soon destroyed the muqata, headquarters of the district governor, and many other buildings. Since mid-December 2003, it has intensified its incursions, seeking suspected terrorists, militants of Hamas, and munitions makers. Using bulldozers, tanks, helicopters, and F-16 aircraft, the Israelis have destroyed or badly damaged two mosques, three churches, and hundreds of other buildings and homes.
Walking through and near the old city I saw pharmacists’ shops, insecticide factories, and pharmaceutical factories, all turned into heaps of rubble because they were said to be factories for guns and munitions. An entire city block that housed a soap factory has been leveled. I saw the rubble of a house, which supposedly sheltered a militant …