Palestinian presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd during his visit to Nablus’ Old City, 6 January 2005. (Photo: AFP/Pedro Ugarte)
NABLUS — Three days before the general election in Palestine - the first since January 1996 when Yassir Arafat was elected president of the Palestinian National Authority - Abbu Mazen a.k.a. Abbas was to visit Nablus. He had waited until the end of the campaign possibly because his nearest rival, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi is well loved in this, his mother’s native city. But on this day, January 6, 2005, the Israeli soldiers stationed at the Hawarra checkpoint were unusually polite as people passed through without incident or excessive waiting as international television cameras recorded the historic moment.
Nablus is both a valley and mountain community, with a 3,000-year Old City and modern market places and shops located in the valley, and terraced homes and apartment buildings constructed along the twin North and South Mountains. Some believe that the North Mountain is where Moses spoke to God, and a delegation of Christians has set up residency on the top of the mountain where they believe Christ will appear during the Second Coming. This is the home of the Good Samaritan of the Bible, a city noted for its hospitality that nearly three years ago endured a 40-day siege by the Israeli Offensive Forces during the Re-Occupation.
There are two major checkpoints guarding this home of nearly a quarter of a million residents, Hawarra on the east and Beit Eba on the west. The western most region of the city is where the wealthiest members of the community have chosen to build, the older sections and decades old refugee camps is where Israel typically chooses to stage their most brutal assaults. With the exception of this historic day, Israeli Offense Forces, as the residents call them, prowl the streets looking for militants or the opportunity to raise hell just for the fun of it. Their tools are tanks, assault helicopters, fighter jets and snipers stationed anywhere — in shops and homes, within terraced gardens and balconies — everywhere, including at outpost vantage points atop the ancient mountains that historically served to guard life within the city.
Traveling along the streets, uniformed Nablus police are stationed in clusters every few hundred feet, and posters of Abbas two and three stories high greet the view. Palestinian Authority soldiers also dot the landscape. It is a very special day. Typically, city or national police daring to be seen in uniform are shot to death by the IOF. But despite their absence from view, the Israeli presence is still felt. Surveillance is omnipresent in this city and so too is the occasional collaborator, blackmailed into betraying the sacred trust of the people.
Driving about, bullet pock-marked shops and residences are easily spotted, along with ruins of recent attacks. The damage inflicted by F-16 fighter jet rocket attacks on Arafat’s residence in Nablus as well as the Nablus government authority building are a reminder to residents of Israel’s overwhelming force that governs their lives. Today, Rafedia Street is one of the few remaining locations where Nablus citizens dare to relax and enjoy a stroll while shopping and visiting cafes and restaurants. But the nights belong to Israel, where sniper fire, the rumble and shelling from tanks, and the whirl of helicopter blades could wake the dead and provide little rest or hope for the living.
But, on this day, attention is focused on Abbas who arrives at Al-Najah National University escorted by official cars, ambulances sounding sirens, and jeeps as his mud-caked but otherwise spotless black Mercedes enters the school courtyard. Palestinian flags are everywhere strung from building to building along with giant posters that proclaim, “ABBAS - Let’s make Election Day a National Festival Day. Uphold Palestinian Rights. Vote for Abu Mazen!”
Abbas begins his talk flanked by Munib Masri, the richest man in Nablus, who lives in a magnificent mansion on top of the Altor (South) Mountain, the mayor of Nablus, Ghasan Shaka’a, as well as the local Islamic Imam, the highest ranking Christian churchman, and a member of the Jewish Samaritan community. Following the speech, he will meet with businessmen for lunch and then visit the Old City and its down-trodden refugee camps.
“Brothers, Sisters,” he begins, “Nablus is in my heart.” Abbas shouts this four times as the emotion of the audience swells. “All have rights: Muslim, Christian. We know how much you suffer. We know that the occupation tries to break you, but we will break it like a rock. Palestine will be free. Jerusalem will be our capital. We don’t want settlements. We don’t want walls. As for the refugees - they will come back. They will return. There will be NO resolution if any man, woman or child remains within Israeli prisons. They say the militants are terrorists, but we will find them jobs and help them to live normal lives in a normal society and no longer will they be forced to escape the wrath of the Israeli Occupation Forces. All of you are the future of Palestine. With the Will of God we will raise the flag of freedom all over Palestine.”
As the crowd filtered out of the courtyard following the speech, well groomed and exquisitely attired businessmen mingled with men and women in jeans and leather jackets. Others wore colorful sweat shirts and many were dressed in traditional Islamic garments. Some wore leather strings around their necks bearing photos of martyred friends and relatives.
Basam Masri operates building material shops and is a prominent member of the Nablus community and as well as Fateh. “Abu Mazen is the choice of the Fateh organization,” he commented. “He will keep the Palestinian movement progressing toward our ultimate goals. Everyone thinks he is the best person for the future of Palestine and the most acceptable candidate for the world community. Abbas believes in a fair peace. He will stop the spilling of blood, but without loosing our rights and our homeland.”
Fou’ad Sabbah imports spare parts for automobiles and other vehicles. According to Sabbah, “The economic situation in Nablus is damaged. People have suffered for a long time. We believe we need change and Abbas is the perfect person to improve the situation,” he said. “We need European and world pressure on Israel to change its policy and to return to negotiations with Palestinians and to have Palestinians fight political battles not fight by spilling blood,” he continued. “Palestinian children have the right to live as other children live throughout the world, in peace.”
Huda Laham, a 25 year old pharmacist said, “I missed Abbas’ speech but I will vote for him because I want a change. Her friend Rawand Jamous commented that she will vote for Mustafa Barghouthi.
“As an individual,” she said, “he could be described as the direct opposite of Abbas. He is fair minded and he is the head of the Union of Medical Relief.” She stated that Barghouthi has been central to providing direct assistant to the people of Nablus.
Maher Masri, the Economic Minister for the Palestinian Authority explained that he is neutral in terms of the presidential election; however whoever is elected must fill the shoes left by Arafat while creating change that will bring about final status negotiations.
“A new course must be established for Palestine,” he said. “The current economy has been devastated by closures. The economy of the people is dependent on the ability of businesses and individuals to move about freely. The wall and Israeli incursions are devastating our lives. Unless the restrictions are lifted by Israel and the occupation ended, it will be very difficult for the Palestinian economy to recover.”
Genevieve Cora Fraser is a poet, playwright and journalist as well as a long-standing environmental and human rights activist. Nablus residents Diana Salah and Rula Khaiat assisted with this article.