Tensions rising, Nablus braces for an intifada of hunger

Economic hardship in West Bank city raises specter of violence against both Palestinian Authority and Israel

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of PA President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, in the Old City in Nablus, West Bank. (photo credit: Wagdi Ashtiyeh /Flash90)
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of PA President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, in the Old City in Nablus, West Bank. (photo credit: Wagdi Ashtiyeh /Flash90)

NABLUS, West Bank — As economic hardships for Palestinians in the largest city in the northern West Bank grow, the possibility of armed conflict, against Israel and the Palestinian Authority alike, once again rears its head.

The casbah in Nablus was a stronghold of armed terrorists in the West Bank during the First Intifada. During the Second Intifada, it was the point of origin for countless terror attacks against Israelis within and outside the Green Line. Groups of armed men walked about here in broad daylight, acting without restraint against Israelis, Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority.

Some of the Israeli army’s toughest battles during 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield took place here, and armed men continued to act freely even years later. It was a situation of fauda, the Arabic word for “utter chaos.”

At first the armed men belonged to Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Fatah’s military wing, and in the last years of the intifada, they belonged to the Night Riders, a splinter group of the Brigades that controlled the casbah complex. I remember one of the first meetings with them, in a safe house in the casbah (in the old city), as armed men whose job it was to warn of undercover agents patrolled every streetcorner.

The casbah is entirely different today. It is full of tourists, lively and colorful. The marketplace has been renovated and enclosed, the municipality inspects the shops and stalls, and parking meters have been installed in all the alleyways of the downtown area. For lovers of Arab food, it is nothing less than a slice of culinary heaven.

In one of the small restaurants, Al-Akab, I meet several of the former major activists in the armed groups. M., who was considered a high-ranking member of the Night Riders, is here. Sitting near him are Samer and Samir; Salah, who was released from an Israeli prison just two weeks ago after serving a nine-year sentence; and Qaid. They were here, too, in 2006, armed, angry, tensed for a possible meeting with an Israeli and definitely alert to the possibility that undercover agents might arrive.

But nine years have gone by since then, and for them, those days are over. Their hair has gone gray, their paunches have grown a bit, they are calmer and they all sit around a large table to which the restaurant owner brings more and more ejja (vegetable omelettes), yogurt with jerjeer (arugula) and garlic – lots of garlic – and, of course, hummus with meat.

The restaurant owner tells us that his grandfather opened the restaurant in 1940. No drinks are served here; they must be brought from the shop nearby.

The group of former wanted men talk again and again about money, making a living and the economy. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems as distant as ever and the possibility of another violent outbreak looms overhead.

Armed Palestinian police take up positions near the old marketplace in the West Bank city of Nablus in November 2007. (photo credit: Maya Levin / Flash90)
Armed Palestinian police take up positions near the old marketplace in the West Bank city of Nablus in November 2007. (photo credit: Maya Levin / Flash90)

They call this “intifadat al-jou’an,” the intifada of the hungry. M. says that he and his friends, who work in the Palestinian security services, have been receiving 60 percent of their salaries for the past four months. At first, this was because Israel had stopped the transfer of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to transfer the funds, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) would not accept them because of Israel’s decision to deduct the debt owed by the Palestinian power companies.

“There are hungry people here, and this will lead to an explosion. Our leadership is doing everything it possibly can to prevent violence, but how long can it last? Nobody knows, so it will be an intifada of hunger and poverty. There is no business. You see people coming and going, but there is no harka, no true movement of commerce.”

Will you be joining it?

“In the end, we are dependent upon the political decision,” M. says. “We will do nothing without instructions from the Palestinian Authority.”

His friend Samir says that the matter is in Israel’s hands. “The way your coalition looks now, it will only get worse,” he says. “Israel’s decision not to transfer funds had a bad effect on everyone here, and the next war will be over everybody’s wallets. And if you think that we are tired, you are wrong. You have declared economic war on us.

“Look at the situation seven years ago, in 2008, when the calm started. There was a significant economic improvement. There were jobs, there was commerce. Recently, there has been nothing. And I tell you: If Israel continues its policy, the street will explode.”

M.: “I work in the security services and support President Abu Mazen. But you see that Israel is trying to push us into a corner and bring about the Palestinian Authority’s collapse. And what then? What will happen with you? Is your goal really to overthrow Abu Mazen? Have you really thought about that?”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, January 4, 2015. (photo credit: Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, January 4, 2015. (photo credit: Flash90)

It’s the economy

Still, the feeling here is hardly one of an incipient intifada. The long line at the Al-Aqsa kanafeh shop has everybody concentrating on the orange confections for a moment, forgetting about the occupation and the settlements. On the other side is the kitchen where trays upon trays are being prepared, for the greater glory of Palestine. This is the world’s best kanafeh (to me, at least), and its reputation has spread far and wide. Half a portion costs only eight shekels here.

The Hanbali Mosque is in the center of the casbah. Abu Ahmed, the imam, gives us a small tour of the mosque, which he says was built about a thousand years ago. In the safe of this ancient mosque he keeps three signs that, according to traditional belief, were written by Mohammed himself. Every year on the 27th day of the holy month of Ramadan, he takes the signs out of the safe and a huge crowd gathers to view them from up close and receive a blessing.

Every one of the shops and restaurants here has a piece of history. The Abu Ayash halvah store has been in operation since 1860. Al-Jamal’s famous tehina shop began in the casbah as well, and its products can be purchased in almost every supermarket in Tel Aviv. A few dozen meters away is a small store that repairs portable stoves and kerosene burners, as if time had stood still. Nearby is Nablus’s well-known hammam, or Turkish bath.

Abu Omar is one of the owners of a shop that sells hijabs – women’s head coverings. He explains the differences to us. “The mandil is for older women,” he says. “The shawl is more in style for young women, and you see that we have it in many colors here. Most of the women in Nablus wear a shawl today – it’s a social thing, not a religious one. I import most of the merchandise from Turkey and China, and yes, business is relatively OK but not too good. My profit is minimal.

“You want to know who is making lots of money? Everybody who smuggles in stolen goods: perfumes, Viagra, fake brands. As I see it, the whole Palestinian Authority are thieves. So is Hamas. Everybody here wants to make money. So do I.

“And I tell you that in light of the economic situation that we have reached, and the political situation, we would be better off if there were no Palestinian Authority. Enough. Let them close the shop, let there be an Israeli military administration by the Jews and that’s it. Or a third intifada. I tell you: All the Palestinian groups – Fatah, Hamas – they’re all thieves. At least the Jews didn’t steal money from us.”

Yitzhak, a high-ranking official in the Education Ministry, says, “Life here revolves around the economy, around salaries. The situation here is getting worse. The market is relatively empty, the shop owners have no work at all, there is no income. There is no life. I do not see an intifada on the horizon, but there is going to be a mess here. There will be conflicts and there will be violence and robberies and burglaries, which there are already.”

Yusef, the manager of one of the electric company’s branches in Nablus and Jenin, says that people have no money to pay their bills. “About 70 percent of the residents cannot pay their electric bills today,” he says. “So what are we going to do? Where are we going to get the money from? We come to these people and ask them to pay, and they tell us: ‘Please cut off our power.’ And we do. They have no power in their homes.

“A few weeks ago, a company vice president came to me and said, ‘I cannot pay. Do as you wish.’ The people here want to eat. Do you realize that the prices here are like in Israel, but with starvation wages? I have been a Fatah man all my life, a Palestinian Authority man. I call here on Abu Mazen: Leave the Palestinian Authority. Leave and let Israel run things. Let them run things on the ground and we will see what they will do.”

Pressure on the Palestinian Authority

The frustration with the Palestinian Authority (and anger at Israel) can be heard everywhere, sometimes more and often less. In one place in particular, the Balata refugee camp, the anger is directed more toward the Palestinian Authority and less against Israel.

Balata has always been considered a kind of extra-territorial place, including for the Palestinian Authority, and like the casbah, it witnessed terrible fighting in both intifadas. In recent weeks it has become a focus of constant friction between armed men, some of them identified with Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority and its security services.

During an attempted arrest in a café here this past Monday, Palestinian police officers shot the leg of a suspect who was resisting arrest. Nablus Governor Akram Rajoub (a relation of senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub) warned in the media that lawbreakers would be shot next time, too. This tension began three weeks ago, when the security services in Nablus began imposing law and order in Balata by force, and arresting anyone suspected of bearing arms or of criminal activity. This created a great deal of bitterness among the inhabitants, who see the Palestinian Authority and Abbas as responsible for their poor economic and social situation.

For many years they have carried a deep sense of deprivation as compared with the inhabitants of the cities. They have known for years that they are at the bottom of the Palestinian social ladder, and the Palestinian Authority has done nothing to rectify that. The wave of arrests that the Palestinian Authority carried out in Balata heated things up even more.

Over the past three weeks, the teenagers and children of Balata have repeatedly blocked Al-Quds Street, the main road between Nablus and Ramallah, by setting tires ablaze and placing boulders in the middle of the street. And each time the Palestinian police officers tried to disperse the young demonstrators, they were met with massive barrages of stones. It was an intifada, and not against Israel.

The camp looks almost like it did the first time I visited it. Small, neglected alleyways, homes built with unprecedented overcrowding, piles of trash everywhere and young people and children going about with nothing to do.

Only one thing has changed: The number of monuments to shahids, or martyrs, has increased over the years. A small monument to one of those killed can be seen every few hundred meters.

The economic and social situation of Balata’s residents does not seem to be a major concern for the leadership in Ramallah. To the leaders, it is UNRWA, not the Palestinian Authority, that should be taking care of the refugees. As they see it, if the Palestinian government starts supporting the inhabitants of the refugee camps, they will lose their perpetual status as refugees.

The social gap between the city and the refugee camp definitely plays a role in the Palestinian Authority’s decisions regarding the inhabitants of Balata and the other refugee camps. In addition, Palestinian Authority officials in the Nablus district and in the leadership in Ramallah claim that some interested parties in the camp are creating tension deliberately and sending the children out to clash with the security personnel.

Mohammed Dahlan in 2006. (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Mohammed Dahlan in 2006. (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Palestinian Authority officials believe that former prominent activists in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades are receiving funding from abroad to engage in conflict with Palestinian police officers. Instead of coming up with a more comprehensive solution to the refugee problem, they prefer to point a finger of blame at Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah official living in exile in the United Arab Emirates (after he and Abbas had a falling out).

“There is a group of people in Balata, not everybody, with a specific agenda: They want the situation to remain as it is,” Governor Akram Rajoub tells us. “They break the law and try to convey messages to us in an illegal manner. When we came to arrest someone, they fired at the church inside the camp.

“When we came to arrest someone else, they fired on residents’ homes. And I say here in the clearest way: Anyone who breaks the law will pay a price. Anyone who fires at the church, or at residents’ homes, will pay and go to jail. We will not accept interim solutions.”

Who is behind these people?

“I would not be surprised if it was Mohammed Dahlan. Who is paying these people? Who is buying them guns? These people who supposedly have no jobs – how are they able to buy weapons? Whose interests are they serving? And I tell you: My commander is Abu Mazen. He is the chairman of the PLO and of Fatah and the president of the state.”

He continues: “Abu Mazen has a peace plan. In conjunction with him, I am dealing with Hamas, which has its own ideology and support on the Palestinian street, and I cannot ignore that even if I go after lawbreakers. But who is Mohammed Dahlan? Who is he? What peace plan does he have that he has presented to the Palestinian nation except giving people money? What is his history on the national level? And more than that: where is he getting so much money to throw at people? I would like one of those who are getting money from him to explain to us what he offers the Palestinian people. I ask that here of everyone who supports Dahlan.

“Why is he damaging the legitimacy of the Palestinian leaders, Arafat and Abu Mazen? Why is he attacking the rais, as your own defense minister, Ya’alon, is doing? I tell you – and mark my words – Dahlan has a plan to harm the Palestinian interest. He has a great deal of money but no power. And he is the champion when it comes to running away. He ran away from Gaza and he ran away from the West Bank. Why did he run away from the West Bank? Nobody had threatened his life. Nobody was trying to hurt him. If he were a man, he would have stayed. But he is a coward.”

And what about the peace process with Israel? Where is that headed?

“I think that the political war between ourselves and Israel will move to the diplomatic level. That will probably have consequences on the ground, and if the Israeli government brings about an escalation, those consequences will be hard ones. Collective punishment means a big mess. It is also likely that massive American pressure will lead Netanyahu to make dramatic gestures, such as freezing [construction in] settlements and releasing prisoners.

“But beyond that, I say: We have been conducting talks with Israel for 21 years already. For 21 years, we have been saying that security cooperation is a vital interest of the Palestinian people as well. Our goal was to pave the way for Netanyahu and Abbas to make peace. But if this view does not lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state and to peace, the leadership must go back to the previous stage, before the Palestinian Authority was established.

In other words, it must consider stopping the coordination. And here, too, we must realize that there are all kinds of levels. For example, we don’t have to stop civilian coordination. But in the future, will I have to arrest people whom Israeli officials suspect of security activity? Will I have to continue security coordination meetings?

Personally, I think that our leadership should reconsider its policy toward Israel. I do not feel that the Israelis are my partners. It’s true that the regional commander, my counterpart, meets with me. But what good is that if Netanyahu does not meet with Abbas? Are we your servants? Your commanders on the ground oppose collective punishment and the confiscation of the tax revenues. But in the end, those commanders do what the political echelon tells them to do. We want real partnership, not to be treated like servants.”

Where is Hamas?

On Tuesday at noon, the only evidence of Hamas’s existence in the Balata refugee camp was its flags outside the home of a prisoner who had been released from an Israeli jail just several days before. Most of the people who live in Balata support Fatah, here and in the city as well.

Hamas has lowered its profile. It does not hold public rallies, and its leaders are in hiding. But the near-complete absence of its green banners from the streets may be misleading. Hamas continues to act secretly, beneath the surface.

On Tuesday night, large numbers of Israeli troops raided Balata and various neighborhoods in the city, arresting 29 Palestinians, most of them Hamas operatives suspected of having attempted to commit terror attacks intended, among other things, to destabilize the Palestinian Authority. Within a few weeks, replacements will be found for them, too.

** This is the first in a series of articles by The Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff from major West bank cities.

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