NABLUS, West Bank -- In the tight little alleys of central Nablus, a maze of hole-in-the-wall shops and ancient homes cloistered behind stone walls, a deadly, destructive but largely unheralded battle took place last month.
As the city starts to dig out and assess the damage to families, homes and archaeological sites, Palestinian officials, human rights investigators and aid groups have begun to conclude that Nablus was the hardest-hit of all the West Bank cities attacked by Israeli forces during Operation Protective Shield.
Israeli forces went into the West Bank towns, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said, to root out the Palestinians' terrorist infrastructure. An army spokeswoman said that during the operation in Nablus troops found 18 bomb-making workshops, 10 explosive belts apparently prepared for suicide bombings and seven homemade rockets.
The Hendeya family in Nablus on the West Bank, have erected a flag monument, with flags from Arab countries, on top of the rubble left over from the four storied house where they used to live, Thursday, May 9, 2002. The Israeli army demolished the house last week and the family now lives in the tent on the left. Below the flag are pictures of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and King Abdullah of Jordan and banners asking for assistance from Arab countries. (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtaya)
The fighting was fierce, but it took weeks for the extent of the loss of life and property to become known. "Nobody seemed to know what was going on here," lamented Ibrahim Muslih, who runs the Nablus branch of the Palestinian Authority's Public Works Ministry and is trying to get rebuilding started.
At the time of the incursion in Nablus, international attention was focused on fighting in the Jenin refugee camp, 20 miles to the north, and on a siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, 40 miles to the south.
Independent investigation has not borne out initial Palestinian charges that hundreds of people died in Jenin. Estimates from Palestinian and foreign human rights groups now put the number of Palestinians killed there at 52 to 54, with about 22 civilians among them. And the Church of the Nativity emerged only slightly scarred from the dramatic siege, enabling an envoy from Pope John Paul II to say Mass there two days after the Israeli withdrawal.
In Nablus, however, an investigation by the Palestinian human rights group LAW concluded that 75 Palestinians, 50 of them civilians, were killed here during attacks by Israeli AH-64 Apache gunships, tanks and infantry on young Palestinian fighters armed with automatic rifles.
Muslih put the number of Palestinians killed at 79, a figure that includes several people killed in nearby refugee camps.
An Israeli army spokesman said one Israeli soldier was killed during the 18-day siege, which ended April 21. The army has not disputed the death toll provided by the Palestinians, and has not given one of its own.
The city and its surroundings suffered an estimated $114 million in damage, the largest part of the $361 million worth of damage across the West Bank during the month-long campaign, according to an estimate prepared for potential donor countries by the United Nations, the World Bank and the government of Norway.
"We concluded that what happened in Nablus is much worse than what happened in Jenin," said the lawyer who runs LAW, Khader Shkirat. The donors' report estimated physical damage in Jenin and the adjacent refugee camp at $83 million.
Much of the destruction in Nablus was caused by Israeli armored bulldozers pushing through buildings to get at nests of Palestinian street fighters in the warren-like central quarter, residents said.
One bulldozer grinding down a hillside of old stone buildings in the Qaryon neighborhood knocked over the home of Samir Shuby, killing him, his wife, his three boys, his father and his sister, residents said. An uncle and aunt were found alive in the rubble after several days.
The donors' report estimated the historic Old City suffered an estimated $42.5 million worth of damage. In addition to homes, many of them multi-story houses for extended families, the destruction hit an ancient mosque, traditional soap factories, a Greek Orthodox church and an Ottoman-era bath.
Ziad Safadhi, 55, has already repaired the little sundries shop he has run in the heart of the Old City since 1982, when he was released from 12 years in an Israeli jail because of membership in the Fatah organization of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. He said Muslih paid for the fixes.
"He came with the money in his pocket," Safadhi recalled. "He pulled it out, and we started in."
Arafat, who heads the Palestinian Authority, which nominally rules areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under the 1993 Oslo accords, stopped to talk with Safadhi during a visit here last week. He told the veteran activist and shopkeeper that he was "among the greats" who have resisted Israeli occupation over the years.
"I told him, 'Maybe I'm great, but I just want to eat,' " Safadhi recalled.
"I have children here," he added, gesturing toward a dark-haired boy. "I have to feed them and send them to school."
Repairs have not yet begun on the old house across the alleyway from Safadhi's shop, which was collapsed into a heap of stone and cement. According to Safadhi, it was hit by missiles fired from helicopter gunships during the fighting.
Asked why his shop and the house across the street were targeted, Safadhi said: "This whole neighborhood was full of the boys."
"Boys" is the popular Palestinian term for young fighters in such armed groups as Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which describes itself as Fatah's armed wing.
In Nablus and throughout the West Bank, gunmen from these organizations put up the only significant resistance to the military campaign that Sharon launched March 29 after a series of Palestinian suicide bombings against civilians in Israel.
The resistance was particularly dogged in the narrow alleyways of old Nablus, which helps explain the extent of damage.
Posters of the dead fighters, whom Palestinians refer to as martyrs, have gone up around the city. There is a large one depicting the entire Shuby family. Young men carrying M-16 assault rifles still hang around on street corners, but their leaders have been arrested by Israeli troops or have gone underground.
For the rebuilding, however, Nablus residents have turned to the Palestinian Authority. Muslih said he has received 4,000 requests for help in repairing property in Nablus, a city of 150,000.
He said a preliminary survey indicated that 100 houses were destroyed, including some historic buildings where families lived. Another 1,000 houses were significantly damaged but can be repaired, he said, while about 1,500 were less heavily damaged.
Families without a place to live are entitled to $800 to tide them over, Muslih said. The money comes from business leaders, charitable organizations and city hall. The Palestinian Authority, he said, has no money for rebuilding. Since December 2000, Israel has refused to hand over to the authority tax revenue that it collects from Palestinians.
Muslih estimated Nablus would need $35 million just to begin repairs. He has forwarded a report to Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and received representatives of prospective donor organizations and governments to press his case.
"So far," he said, "we have received nothing, not a single dollar, not a single commitment from a donor country."
Residents who attend the Al Khadra Mosque have not waited for the authority for help. Using money and labor donated by businesses, they have begun repairs on the ancient stone building, which has alternated between a church and a mosque over the centuries of Nablus's tortured history.
Similarly, the Rev. George Awad has scraped together enough donations from friends and his 400 parishioners to begin repairing St. Dimitrios Greek Orthodox Church, another landmark in the Old City. He estimated damage to the stone entranceway, interior walls and windows of the church and rectory at $55,000.
Paintings behind the altar were scratched, he said, but he will have them assessed by experts to determine what can be done to repair them. "Each of those pictures is worth $10,000, but we don't want to sell them," he said. "We want to keep them and enjoy them."
The church apparently was damaged as Israeli troops blew up a nearby factory used to make Nablus's traditional soap products. Palestinian fighters had taken it over, Awad said, and rigged it with explosives.
He recalled that an Israeli soldier saw him in the street and shouted: "Man! Man! . . . Get out of here fast. We're going to blow things up in five minutes."
From his vantage point in a nearby school, Awad heard a tremendous explosion about an hour later, he said in an account confirmed by the Israeli army. When he came back, the soap factory lay in ruins. Destroyed along with it was the adjacent Khan al-Wakaleh, an ancient caravansary that local officials had hoped, in the days just after the Oslo accords, to turn into a tourist attraction.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company