Palestinians in Nablus, once known for suicide bombers, now seeking better days


Palestinian men hold portraits of Hassan al-Turabi, a Palestinian prisoner, during a demonstration in solidarity with prisoners held in Israeli jails on Oct. 20 in the West Bank City of Nablus. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A decade ago, this ancient town was a crucible of terror and resistance — and produced more suicide bombers than any other city in the devastating second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel.

Now, Nablus wants desperately to get back to normal — back to work, back to the world. But it is not so easy.

Interviews with business owners and their workers here in the northern West Bank, once the engine of Palestinian industry, reveal a city that has little hope for a peace deal with the Israelis and considers its own leadership feeble and corrupt.

Three months into a new round of negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few here believe Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s promise in May that a peace accord would bring $4 billion in economic development to Palestinians and cut unemployment by two-thirds.

Here in Nablus, seeing a handful of tourists in the Old City’s Casbah or being able to ship a couple more crates of olive-oil soap to Israel or Europe would be considered a victory.

“To this day, Nablus has not really recovered from second intifada,” said Tayseer Nasrallah, one of the top Palestinian Authority officials in Nablus. The second intifada was the Palestinian uprising and Israeli response that left more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis dead between 2000 and 2005.

“The Israelis still consider us a den of martyrs, because of the number of suicide bombers who came from Nablus. It was a terrible time,” Nasrallah said. He said he shuddered to think that a third intifada was possible if the peace process collapses.

“Who would we fight for now? For the same old leadership? We were like sacrificial lambs. Not again. No one here wants to see a reprise of intifada,” he said.

That is not necessarily so. On Saturday, the Hamas prime minister in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, said old political foes Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which runs the West Bank, should reconcile and join forces for “armed struggle, popular uprising and political, diplomatic and media battles,” according to the translation of his speech in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The past isn’t past here. The warren of the Old City, which rivals Damascus, just 100 miles to the north, in its antiquity, with buildings dating from the Roman Empire, still bears scars of Israeli military incursions, and fresh posters of Palestinians jailed or killed by Israelis cover the walls.

“The people here are sick of conflict. We want the economy to flourish again. We want to come back to where we were before, to live — but to live with a little dignity,” said Hazem Marea, owner of a restored Ottoman-era hammam, or bathhouse, who tends to a trickle of customers, mostly older gentlemen who come to lay their bones down on his heated marble slab.

With sad regularity, clashes still occur every few weeks between Israeli security forces and young Palestinians who live in the neighboring refugee camps. These Palestinians hurl insults and stones at Jews from nearby settlements who come to pray — and lay claim to — a religious site called Joseph’s Tomb.

A September poll by the Geneva Initiative found that more than 70 percent of Palestinians surveyed in the West Bank expect the negotiations to fail — though more than half said the two sides should keep trying.

‘Going to die waiting’

“Nablus is still on the blacklist,” said Ala Tamam, director of a family-owned factory that produces the sesame-seed dip called tahini.

The company sends most of its production to consumers inside Israel. Even so, Tamam says it is a fraction of how much he could sell if he had open access to the market next door.

His problem? It is hard to receive the kosher certificate required for retail in many Jewish stores.

Getting a rabbi to enter Nablus to certify that kosher conditions are being met is nearly impossible, he said. Nablus is mostly off-limits to Jewish Israelis, who are told by the Israeli military not to enter. Tamam is considering setting up a video Internet link and inviting Israel’s rabbinic authority to monitor the factory in cyberspace, but he hasn’t had any luck.

“The minute people hear where we are located, they don’t want to do business with us,” Tamam said.

At one of the city’s three refugee enclaves, called Camp No. 1, four middle-aged men — a metal worker, a contractor, an electrician and a furniture maker — sat around a table drinking coffee and smoking. None had full-time employment.

“I’ve witnessed two intifadas and endless negotiations, and nothing has come from them,” said Abu Jossif, 47, who works construction. He said he hasn’t seen the Mediterranean Sea since he was a boy. “We’re going to die waiting.”

He blames both the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership.

All four men said they never discussed the peace talks.

“You could sit in a cafe in Nablus for a week and never hear it mentioned, not once,” he said.

“When the intifada came, there were many problems for the industry here — we had a complete closure for eight years in Nablus, and then two years we were partially closed,” said Nameer T. Khayyat, general director of the Nablus Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He described how, during those years, Israel’s military forces bombed factories, destroyed stores and prompted many local industries to relocate elsewhere in the West Bank to survive.

Today, he said, things are looking up. Thanks to loans and donations from outside countries and investors, local factories — which number 2,500, according to the chamber — are finally receiving new equipment and working according to international standards. Some of those who left Nablus during the intifada years are returning.

“Nablus was always the mother of Palestinian industry,” said Fadi Zaqha, manager of the Golden Elevator company, the only such Palestinian outlet in existence.

He said his goal is twofold: to show that Palestinian brains can design elevators of an international standard and to make sure that Palestinian industry sees a resurgence in Nablus. “It is the heart of our industry and commerce,” he said.

“Hunger and bitterness is the first enemy of peace,” said Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shakaa, who led the city during the second intifada and was reelected to office a year ago.

He said he is busy working to rebuild Nablus’s municipal institutions, boost its transportation infrastructure and address the city’s debt of $20 million and its 32 percent unemployment rate.

“I want Nablus to come back as the lady of Palestine,” he said. “As she used to be.”

Sufian Taha contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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