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talking politics

Nablus: Fury and Apathy

I

PHONED AP photographer Nasser e-Shtay on Friday evening, December 22, 2006. I knew he'd been working in Nablus all day. There had been a lot of work there. "Do you have anything?" I asked. His "Yes" was so definite that I couldn't hold back. "I'll be over in ten minutes," I said.

That Friday was among the hardest days Nablus has seen of late, and I knew that Nasser e-Shtay would have documented it. Street battles had taken place between Fatah and Hamas—an overflow of the civil war in the Gaza Strip.

While Hamas has the upper hand in Gaza, Fatah has it in the West Bank. Friday's battles in Nablus began when Hamas members gathered in the center of town to celebrate their movement's 18th anniversary. Dozens of armed Fatah fighters from the refugee camps arrived to smash up the assembly. Until a year ago these men had worked in the PA security forces. After Hamas won the elections of January 25, 2006, the donor nations cut off the money that paid their salaries. They joined Fatah's Aqsa brigades and went into the streets to settle accounts with the Hamas government.

Israel's policy in all this is "Let them kill one another and save us the job." The IDF waits for nightfall, when the fighters are exhausted from the battles of the day, to go in and "take care of them."

"I've been shooting pictures for fourteen years," says Nasser e-Shtay. "I've seen everything. I saw my daughter die at a checkpoint, but that was long ago, in 2002. We were on our way to the hospital because she was ill and we got caught in a clash between the fighters and the IDF. She was two months old. The army wouldn't let us through, and she died in two hours. Her name was Danna."

He says this casually, as if the incident was part of the résumé that belongs to every Palestinian. Nablus has seen so many martyrs that Nasser shows little interest in the topic. What matters at present is survival. "I've gone through three Intifadas," he says, "'87, '96 and al-Aqsa. But today I didn't expect to get home alive. The hatred between the factions fanned the flames to a height I've never seen, not even in battles with the IDF. They wounded ten civilians today. They were ready to shoot at anything, including journalists and photographers who were trying to document their fadikha (screw-up)."

Why fadikha? He answers, "Because at the same time this is going on, the Palestinian leaders on both sides, Hamas and Fatah, are peddling a narrative of national unity."

The fadikha was soon exposed. Within two hours Nasser's photographs appeared on the website of the Associated Press, from which they were purchased by leading newspapers in Israel and the world. The pictures explode the myth of national unity. They confirm that the civil war is spreading. Nasser uploads them one by one.

The international economic blockade is one major cause of the conflict. The Europeans, Israel, the US and the Arab states all have spoons in the broth, seeking to undermine the Hamas regime. The current crisis serves Fatah well. If there can't be national unity, at least let there be unity within Fatah. Now that all its factions are crowded beneath the umbrella of Abu Mazen, no one is going to talk about reform or attack the corrupt Tunis wing.

Nasser e-Shtay is a grass-roots person, sensitive to the stirrings of the street. "Today," he says, "half those who voted Hamas want the corrupt Fatah government back. Then, at least, there was something to eat, thanks to the donor nations."

There seems to be plenty to eat. On Saturday morning the Nablus market is teeming with people. The Festival of the Sacrifice is approaching, and it is customary to stock up on food and to feast. This year few buy. People make do with looking.

The vendors have cleared all traces of battle. They've decked their stalls in bright colors, as if to lure the crowd away from apathy and depression. The Palestinian people obeys its leaders, and the leaders have ordered a return to routine.

The only ones to break it this morning are the leftist organizations. They have united in a demonstration against the chaos in the PA. Between the banana and citrus stalls march a hundred or so, crying out for unity. The crowd is indifferent. In the background, from the mountain, come rifle shots.

Majida al-Masri is one of the top leftist leaders in Nablus. She ran unsuccessfully for parliament in the last elections on the ticket of the Democratic Front. She has been up most of the night trying to mediate between Hamas and Fatah, and this morning she looks as pale as her faded posters from a year ago. "The situation is hard," she says. "It's impossible to manage when you have two heads pulling in different directions." She has no doubt that Hamas should accept Abu Mazen's position and agree to a national-unity government. That is the best choice, she says, for enabling the people to renew its strength and recuperate.

But despite the empty coffers and the people's yearning, so many interests are loaded in the scales that Hamas and Fatah do not seem about to unite.

The Fatah members fume at the Hamas members, because these want to keep the government but aren't willing to bend before the West and Israel, as Fatah did in 1993 at Oslo. The Hamas members, who never reckoned on electoral victory, are unwilling to accept the conditions of the West, lest they forfeit the basic principles of their movement. Neither side wants civil war, but the chasm between them is deep. During his recent visit in Teheran, PM Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas left no doubt as to the camp his movement belongs to. And Abu Mazen, in his Saturday night visit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, also left no doubt as to the camp in which Fatah belongs—despite the reluctant cheek he offered to Olmert's kiss.

At present neither side is yielding, and the anti-Hamas coalition strains for a coup. Nasser e-Shtay will be there to photograph it. And Majida al-Masri? Rather than continue with futile attempts to bring the warring sides to the table, perhaps she will offer the people a leftist alternative, something not considered in Washington or Teheran. "end"

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