An Israeli's Sorrowful Rule Over a Sullen Nablus
By JAMES BENNET
[NYTIMES, Page 1 - 3 Oct 2002]: NABLUS, West Bank, Oct. 2 — The Israeli colonel, the new master of this bruised Palestinian city, ordered his jeep to the
curb today and leapt out to intercept two Palestinian teenagers walking by. He wanted to know where they were coming
from, what they had in their book bags, what their identification cards revealed.
"These are two innocent boys coming home from school," he reported, climbing back into the jeep. "How will you know if you
don't check them? How will they not hate you if you check them?"
"This," he continued, "is the daily dilemma, not of a brigade commander, but of a soldier. There is no solution."
Lacking a solution to that dilemma, the colonel, the commander of the infantry brigade that is now warden to this city of
200,000, summed up the high price he is demanding of all Nablus for any violence planned by some of its residents: "They will
suffer until they understand," he said, arguing that the society itself was complicit in terrorism. "My job is to stop suicide
It has been just over 100 days since Israel, after a suicide bomber killed 19 people on a Jerusalem bus, seized control of Nablus,
along with most of the rest of the West Bank not already under its command. It acted under a new policy of taking back
Palestinian-controlled territory "as long as terror continues."
Israeli officials say that suicide bombers and bad Palestinian leadership have left them no choice. "When they will say `enough,'
they can live in peace and quiet," the colonel said. Palestinians say that Israel is provoking violence and seeking to destroy their
governing institutions, economy, and dream of nationhood.
Nowhere has the new military control been more stringent than here, the Palestinian financial capital, which Israeli officials now
call the center of Palestinian terrorism. A dismal status quo has settled over Nablus. "Life here is miserable," the colonel said.
"This is the price. They went back more than 20 years."
In an effort to explain its mission in Nablus, the Israeli Army invited three foreign journalists, including an American, to
accompany the colonel today on a tour. It asked at the end of the tour that the commander not be identified by name.
No successful Palestinian attack has originated here in two months, the colonel said, a record he attributes to the pervasive
Israeli military presence rather than to a collapse in militant motivation. He said his men had stopped more than 15 suicide
bombers and uncovered five weapons laboratories.
At times, the commander, a lean 40-year-old with a shaved head and wraparound sunglasses, seemed to suggest that motivation
may have increased, so far. "When you look at this through Palestinian eyes, you can understand why they hate us so much," he
said, watching other schoolchildren pick their way around a tank and soldiers in battle gear.
Asked how he thought continued military pressure would change that attitude, the commander, a recent graduate of the John F.
Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, spoke of long-term social shifts, of a new Palestinian generation educated for
peace, not violence.
For now, the army has cut Nablus off from the surrounding villages, and it has sliced the city itself in half, throwing up head-high
berms and placing patrols of soldiers and armored vehicles across the main roads. Most days, the city is under curfew. The army
enforces the curfew intermittently, unexpectedly, abruptly sending tanks storming downtown. Commerce has resumed, at an
irregular trickle; schooling was conducted furtively, in home, until the army permitted most schools to reopen a few days ago.
Palestinians call the situation worse than before the Oslo peace accords, which prompted Israel over the last decade to cede
control of some areas, like Nablus, to Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Before Oslo, the Israelis also bore responsibility for
education and other aspects of civil administration, tasks it now leaves to a patchwork of nonprofit organizations and staggering
In the Balata refugee camp in Nablus early this evening, hours after the Israeli army tour ended, dozens of men and boys rushed
up to scan a list stretching across 11 pages, taped to a storefront. Posted by a United Nations relief agency, it showed who was
eligible for how much relief for damage done to their homes or livelihoods by the latest Israeli incursions into the camp. The
amounts were generally $50 to $60, sometimes as high as $200 — never enough, one man grumbled.
Ghassan W. Shakah, the city's mayor, is praised by Israeli officials as a "positive" force. He said he opposed suicide bombing.
But he scoffed at the idea that making life miserable would put a stop to it.
"We have to think about the logic," he said. "The people like me, who are 50 to 60 years old, when you put pressure on them,
they use their minds. But when you put pressure on 17-, 18-year-old boys, you create bitterness and anger."
"I don't believe this is pressure to calm down," he said. "This is pressure to build a bomb and commit suicide." That view was
echoed by young people interviewed here today.
To the mayor, the source of Palestinian violence was Israeli occupation, embodied in the new military presence and in the
settlements spreading over the nearby hills.
Mayor Shakah, who dreamed just three years ago that his ancient home, built by Romans by the remains of a Canaanite city,
would rank with Paris, London or Washington, says he now spends his time negotiating with the army to permit utility workers to
move about to fix power lines or to permit trucks to pick up the tons of garbage generated here each day.
He said he was cutting taxes and utility fees by 30 percent across the board in hope that more people would pay them. "It's a
disaster," he said of the Israeli operation. "Our society is destroyed."
Two 10-year-old boys were killed by Israeli gunfire in separate incidents on Monday, and an Israeli soldier was shot dead by
Palestinians. Yet there has been little armed resistance to this Israeli operation, compared to the fierce gun battles that marked an
incursion here this spring. Then, in about a month, 81 Palestinians died. So far in this operation, the mayor said, 10 or 11
Palestinians have been killed.
Along garbage-strewn streets, their surfaces scored or crushed by tank treads, relentless life is finding its way back, through the
chinks, to the surface. With the tanks and soldiers out of sight, shopkeepers roll up their shutters and trade resumes. Muhammad
Saed, 69, a barber, said he had managed 3 haircuts today at about $3 apiece, compared with 12 to 20 before, when villagers
could still reach Nablus. Several of his mirrors had been shattered or holed by gunfire.
Some taxis ply the streets, dropping passengers to walk around the berms and catch another ride on the far side. Some trucks
are permitted past the checkpoint into the city, then are repeatedly stopped and checked again once inside.
The Israeli colonel said that even as he worked to make life hard here, he was also softening the blows by letting schools and
He described a four-part strategy to choke what he called terrorism's "bottlenecks": stopping money from reaching terrorist
groups; blocking potential ingredients for weapons, including agricultural products like fertilizer; pressuring the families of those
suspected of planning attacks by visiting them at night, arresting some members and threatening destruction of homes; and
pressuring the entire society.
"Just like any other war, this is not a clean war," he said. "This is a dirty war. You cannot judge it in humanitarian terms."
At times, the colonel sounded regretful, as when he watched a group of schoolgirls scurry away across a blasted, rubble-strewn
landscape. "You see those girls — they are frightened to death," he said. "See how they run. They can't go home because I'm
standing here." He said he would not ask his troops to check them, to avoid raising the tension here, and he quickly climbed
back into his jeep and moved on.
But the commander envisioned no prompt end to the struggle. "We're in the middle of a hundred-years' war," he said. "That's
what I tell my soldiers."