The military operation launched by the Israeli army in Nablus and the Balata Refugee Camp in the middle of December has been the widest and most sustained operation in the West Bank since Defensive Shield in March of 2002. According to Nablus governor Mahmoud Aloul, since the start of the campaign on December 15, 14 people have been killed, 165 have been wounded and seven families have been displaced after their homes in the Qaryoun neighborhood were severely damaged by shelling. Fifteen other homes were partially damaged in the same neighborhood.
Since December 30, there have been daily raids on the old city of Nablus, now concentrated in the Qaryoun, Ras Al Ein and Yasmina quarters, the poorest and most crowded neighborhoods of the old city. The Balata refugee camp has been under strict curfew for over two weeks and Nablus has been under a general curfew since December 30.
Observers say the Israeli army is mainly pursuing activists from the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fateh. The most wanted men on the Israeli list are Nayef Abu Sharkh, head of the Brigades in the city, and Nader Abu Leil, the Brigades’ leader in the Balata camp, as well as their lieutenants, Hashem Abu Hamdan and Khalil Marshoud.
On January 2, Israeli forces detained Abu Sharkh’s wife and brother for five hours. Abu Sharkh’s wife was made to call over loudspeakers for her husband to surrender. The ploy failed. On December 20, the Israeli forces demolished the home of Abu Leil and three days later, the same fate befell Abu Hamdan’s house in the Balata camp. The Israeli army has given notice to the Marshoud family that their three-story home is also slated for demolition.
Amin Maqboul, member of the Fateh revolutionary council, describes the operation as "a continuation of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s policy to break the will and the resistance of the Palestinian people" in view of Nablus’ "historic obstinacy and ability to endure."
"Nablus is known as a bastion of Palestinian resistance," Maqboul, who is a resident of Nablus, says, and he bitterly denounces the lack of protest from the Arab and international communities. "If such an operation happened inside Israel, the world would turn upside down."
But the Israeli invasion has also caused a wave of criticism of the Palestinian Authority. Many residents feel the Authority is neglecting what is happening to them.
In a private letter from Muaz Nabulsi, the Head of the Nablus Chamber of Commerce, to Prime Minister Ahmed Qrei’, made available to the Palestine Report, Nabulsi called on the prime minister to convene a meeting in Nablus of the Cabinet to show support for the city.
And during a funeral on January 3 for three residents killed during the incursion one of the pallbearers yelled to the crowd: "Where is the Authority? Why is it silent about what is happening to us? We don’t want ministers or a Legislative Council. We want an honorable national Palestinian leadership comprised of all the factions." The other voices in the funeral rose in agreement.
Maqboul finds this kind of outburst unnecessary. "Criticism towards the Authority in ordinary circumstances is legitimate. But funerals are not the appropriate place to criticize the PA. This is naive and only serves to exonerate Israel, the real reason for the crisis that Palestinians are enduring in Nablus and other Palestinian areas."
PLO executive committee member and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine politburo member Tayseer Khalid, however, says people "felt neglected even before the invasion because of the chaos and the lack of security for the residents. The ordinary citizen is wondering where the Authority is in all of this. Today they are asking the same question: if Nablus falls, what is left?"
Israeli government spokesperson Avi Barnes says Israel will not allow Nablus to be a spawning ground for "Palestinian terrorism" against Israel. According to a recent statement by Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz, there have been 50 "hot" warnings emanating from the city since October 22, 2003, 37 of which "have been dealt with" by the Israeli security establishment.
Maqboul, however, thinks the operation is political. "I think the military escalation in Nablus comes in the context of a ‘nail clipping plan’ before negotiations are held in order to kill off any will to resist and to force acceptance of whatever Sharon is willing to offer politically."
"Sharon is living a political crisis," says Khalid. "He has a plan and is facing opposition from his own party, the ruling coalition and even from the United States. So he wants to offer something to the Likud Party, and Nablus is known for its resistance and steadfastness, so capturing it is an achievement that can be utilized politically."
In "capturing" Nablus, Israeli forces, say Palestinians, have shown a total disregard for the suffering of ordinary citizens and for the historical and archeological nature of the city. Governor Aloul describes the state of the city as "tragic," saying there is a shortage of food, medical supplies and fuel. There is also a serious concern that Israeli forces will destroy the ancient Abdel Hadi Palace in the Qaryoun neighborhood.
"We have contacted several consulates, diplomats and international agencies to protect these historical places, but Israel refuses to heed international intervention," says Aloul.
When Israeli occupation forces raided the 200-year-old Abdel Hadi Palace on December 30, panic spread among the 12 families residing there.
"An Israeli unit came at 2:30 in the morning," says Mouin Abdel Hadi, 36. "They ordered me to take my wife and three children out of the house. They did the same with the rest of the families. They sent the women and children to the neighbors while the men from the ages of 14 to 70 were put with the Afouri family. Then they questioned us: ‘Who lives here? Who sleeps in the house with you? Where are the terrorists? Where are they hiding?’"
Abdel Hadi says he and his brother were then used as human shields. "An officer made me and my brother go and wake up the neighbor. One soldier ordered me to walk in front of him and put the barrel of his gun to my shoulder. We knocked on the Mansour family’s door and when they opened, he took a step inside and fired a bullet just above my shoulder. I felt a sudden jolt and screamed from pain. But he didn’t care. He did the same thing at the Kakhn house. For the rest, he just made me knock and kept the gun on my shoulder but didn’t shoot."
When all the families were outside, the soldiers searched the premises but made no arrests.