In Palestine, Rebellious Nablus Refuses to Bow Down

Cut off from the world by the occupation, hemmed in by the many colonies, this big city in the northern West Bank looks on sorrowfully while Gazan society is demolished by the Israeli army. Nablus embodies a certain art of living but also the spirit of Palestinian resistance, and its population wonders how freedom is going to come.

27 March 2024. General view of the city of Nablus, capital of the northern West Bank, at night.
Jean Stern

From our special correspondent in Nablus.

It is the middle of the afternoon late in March 2024, and the historic centre of Nablus, an interlacing chiaroscuro of narrow streets and proud medieval palaces is only just waking up. For two years now ‘gentle’ Nablus has come to symbolise the refusal of West Bank Palestinians to bow down. Armed resistance, political resistance, cultural resistance, Nablus says ‘no’ and has paid the price for it. Among the Palestinians of Nablus, what they describe as the ongoing genocide in Gaza, has produced a ‘planetary electroshock’, according to one intellectual I spoke to with. And they appear to have recovered ‘the spirit of resistance’ giving rebellious Nablus a glimpse of a future other than war.

This morning the food shops in the souk are half-empty, the Ramadan rush will not begin till nightfall, when people come strolling arm in arm to buy herbs, vegetables, and sweets, including the famous kiafé, a deliciously scented warm custard, which the many Nablus pastry bakers pride themselves on making the best in the Middle East. The stalls are well stocked. Here as elsewhere, everything must look sumptuous and gargantuan for the breaking of the fast. Despite the tragedy which has befallen the region for months, for years, ‘for centuries’, says an aging professor, hardly ironising, the city is proud of its prosperity, not only to be seen in the shiny German sedans, disporting of an evening on the boulevards of the modern city. A trading centre and regional capital of the northern West Bank, Nablus derives part of its wealth from the fertility of its agricultural surroundings, under direct threat from the colonists who seize land and harass the farmers who supply the wholesalers in the city. The bountiful olive trees have contributed to its legendary know-how in soap and beauty products.

The sinister news from Gaza keeps most people in Nablus overwhelmed with grief. Many know some of the victims personally, through marital connections or distant kinship which neither the Nakba nor the colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza have managed to dissolve completely. ‘Who speaks of our sorrow?’, says writer Haifa Majd Kayyal, shattered like so many Palestinians in Nablus and elsewhere by the immensity of their bereavement – over 32,000 dead in Gaza and 600 in the West Bank. True enough, the uncrowned queen, Nablus’ flattering yet ambiguous sobriquet, has a thick sin. A strategic hub on the caravan route, then on the rail line between Damascus, Jerusalem, Amman and Cairo, the city has known many occupying forces in the course of its long history. Yet its legend assures us that it never capitulated. Today this city of more than 270,000 souls is under the scrutiny of two Israeli military bases perched on the surrounding mountain peaks. The new tower blocks built on the hillsides add to the city’s strength and beauty, especially at night. Hard to enter since last Autumn, when the main checkpoints were closed by the Israeli army, Nablus is surrounded by countless colonies, among them many outposts composed of some thirty prefabs and surrounded by barbed-wire fences, until concrete walls can be built. The entire colonial system is under the authority of two Jewish-supremacist and racist ministers. Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich oversee administering the territories. The new colonial militia which they have set up and armed, the Kitat Konenut, already numbers 11,000 bellicose volunteers in the West Bank.

‘People have stopped complaining’

Suddenly the narrow streets of the historic centre are growling with rage. The ancient facades of golden stone can scarcely muffle the mortuary litanies and slogans of revenge. Nablus is burying Wahd Osta, a young man of 19, a resident of Ein, a small refugee camp with a population of two thousand, not far from the city centre.

No comparison with Balata on the south side of the city, or Askar to the north, two refugees’ camps, each housing tens of thousands. Wahd Osta was killed yesterday in Jenin in a clash provoked by Israeli soldiers. The young man’s face is visible, closed eyes, swollen lips. It is a child that this Nablus crowd is about to bury, a small crowd, some three hundred strong. Here, the repression is ferocious, with the active complicity of the Palestinian police. The danger is real. Here, even more than in Israeli cities, Palestinians are afraid to demonstrate. Israel makes frequent preventive arrests followed by administrative detentions without trial or due process. Yet in spite of everything, ‘with what is happening in Gaza these last months, people have stopped complaining about their plight here in Nablus,’ a local intellectual observes. Israel has gone a big step further; we have to take one too.

Yet the faces of the people watching the procession express sadness, lassitude, fear. And indifference as well. As though in the minds of some, since October 7 massacre, as the murderous pounding of Gaza goes on and on, after the countless deaths, ‘It should be time to move on,’ an intellectual concludes.

Wael Al-Faqih, the director of Tanweer, an association established in the historic city centre which has done a lot of social work with women, tells me he is ‘radically in favour of non-violence’ and considers that Palestinians should commit themselves to that option. Israel’s violence, he has experienced it in their prisons, as has his wife, ‘twice for her, several times for me’ on fallacious pretexts. It is time to put an end ‘to this era of quack cures’ as another of my contacts says with bitter irony, hoping to revive thinking about the future.

‘Death has been here for far too long, so many young people have been struck down,’ he continues, convinced that someday there is going to have to be a change of software. For a Naculs architect, the future will consist of ‘continuing to build a civil society and establishing a political project shared by all Palestinians.’ Zouhair Debei, who has devoted part ‘of his life and energy’ to an independent local weekly, tells about ‘having always defended, and today more than ever, the notion of non-violence. We must build an alternative to preserve the memory of Palestinians and above all improve living conditions, especially as concerns education and ecology. We need to plant a lot more trees. The history of Nablus should become a lesson in living together.’

‘Respect for all Palestine’

The very young activists of the Lions’ Den chose a different path in 2022: taking up arms and at the same creating the buzz on TikTok They made it possible for the whole city to ‘earn the respect of all Palestine’ by making life miserable for the occupying troops. For Palestinians, they were resistant for Israelis"terrorists’; over two hundred fighters, most of them killed, some taken prisoner. Chromos that show them bearing arms to cover the walls of the historic centre and the camps. The weedy alley in the heart of the centre where Ibrahim Al-Naboulsi, 18, was killed on 9 August 2022 after an impressive night-time deployment of Israeli soldiers, is the site of a discreet memorial route.

 Portrait of Ibrahim Al-Naboulsi on the spot where he was cut down by the Israeli army in the historic centre of Nablus on 9 August 2022.
Portrait of Ibrahim Al-Naboulsi on the spot where he was cut down by the Israeli army in the historic centre of Nablus on 9 August 2022.
Jean Stern

‘Something has changed since 7 October, and I support the resistance groups, because an occupied people have the right to defend themselves’, says Ibrahim, a young Nablus intellectual. ‘Of the 38 classmates I had in 2005, 22 have since been killed or arrested’. His pain makes it hard for him to breathe, impossible to move sometimes.

Yet he cannot imagine making off. The outside world is closed to him; at the end of the day, Israel controls his life choices with its occupation, its wall, its blockade, everything that poisons his daily existence.

Escaping the occupation is Ibrahim’s nightmare. He is haunted by the memory of a friend of thirteen years, who died in his arms on a footpath after a few minutes’ death throes. He caught a bullet in the eye during the second Intifada, which was as powerful in Nablus as it was lethal. So he is able to understand the sorrow and the anger of the Israelis ‘faced with the horror’ of October 7, but like everyone else here, he asks them in turn to understand his rage, nurtured so long by colonial arbitrariness, revived by the Gaza massacre.

Ibrahim likes to think that for Benyamin Netanyahu’s Israel which tyrannises him, this is ‘the beginning of the end.’The defeat of this government and its army which have been unable to destroy Hamas and free the hostages is an evidence which the people of Nablus share with those of Tel Aviv. The end of a country which has always come out on top until now, at least in its present form, is in fact considered likely by many people in Palestine as in Israel. I’ll take this up again in a future article.

‘The Palestine people’s decision’

Wael Al-Faqih, a pacifist, believes that ‘the right to defend oneself’ against oppression, against a situation which ‘has deteriorated terribly in Gaza for over fifteen years’ is not ‘a decision taken by Hamas but by the Palestinian people. For 75 years Israel has been concealing the reality of Palestine from the rest of the world. That too is changing, and people are beginning to discover the true face of Israel.’ The fact that the debate about the best way to resist, between armed struggle and non-violence, has been opened again in Nablus also illustrates the city’s intellectual reputation, its attachment to ideas and to encounters.

Which does not mean that the Palestinians have regained confidence in their parties and institutions. One of my contacts sums up the general feeling: ‘The Palestinian Authority is corrupt, and its security apparatus has sold out to Israel. It has no project while Hamas is a reactionary, conservative, racist party, against women’s rights and homophobic.’ According to a Palestinian Survey Research (PSR) poll taken at the beginning of March 2024 and based on hundreds of face-to-face interviews in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the occupied territories – which constitutes a sociological exploit – only a third of Palestinians support Hamas, i.e. 9% less than in December 2023 . The support for armed struggle has also dropped by 17%; from 56 to 39%, while support for non-violence has risen to 27%, i.e. an 8% increase. Nonetheless 70% of Palestinians think October 7 attack was justified in view of the failure of the peace process, while at the same time they see Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as tweedledum and tweedledee from the way they wield the minimal powers Israel grants the Palestinians and considering the corruption that prevails in Gaza and the West Bank.

In these mild Spring evenings of Ramadan, the cafés in the historic centre of Nablus are filled with youths, girls and boys in separate groups as elsewhere in the world. They play cards, smoke their water pipes, share pots of tea and knafeh. Light-heartedness is in the genes of the ‘old lady’, another sobriquet for Nablus. An old lady that breathes the fervour of her youngsters into the spirit of resistance and cannot be conned anymore.