Mahmoud Abbas AP
Palestinian children at the Balata refugee camp, in Nablus, supporting President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo by AP
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BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, NABLUS - Several days before the first intifada broke out, a few hundred people in the Balata refugee camp marched toward the drawn guns of raiding Israeli soldiers. The soldiers withdrew at the order of then-GOC Central Command Amram Mitzna, who wanted to avoid bloodshed, and Balata became a symbol of the struggle against the Israeli occupation that broke out on December 9, 1987.

Taisir Nasrallah, of Balata, was one of the Fatah youth leaders in the Nablus area during the first intifada. He does not believe a third intifada is likely in the near future. However, he does believe the Palestinian refugees will return to their homes in Israel some day.

In the second intifada - which, unlike the 1987 popular uprising, was a war by militant groups against the Israel Defense Forces - Balata was one of the toughest bastions of fighting against Israel. The founders of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades came from this camp.

Nasrallah, 50, is now director general in the Nablus governor's office and a central Fatah activist.

"We've obtained stability. There is one authority, the security branches function and the economy has improved. This affects the Palestinians much more than a UN declaration or vote," he says.

"I cannot understand why Israel is inciting so intensively against a UN recognition of Palestinian statehood. I certainly don't see an intifada [in the offing] but I do see instability. Take the events on the Lebanon-Syria border [with Israel], for example. They could certainly recur. Israel fears something happening on the northern borders, but I don't see tens of thousands launching a weeks-long protest here," he says.

Nasrallah and his colleagues Ahsan Khader (brother of Fatah leader Hussam Khader, whom Israel imprisoned about a month ago ) and Fayez Arafat sit on the second floor of the camp's renovated community center. Some 400 local children come to the center every day for assistance with schoolwork, foreign language and communication courses, games and other activities.

"People feel the second intifada didn't do them any good," says Taisir. "The stability has improved their life and finances. Perhaps there will be celebrations following the UN recognition, but it's not likely to turn into a third intifada."

His colleagues agree. Khader says there is no talk of escalation, although in a few years, maybe even decades, "everything will change around here. The internal security is the key. There has been an immense improvement, no more militants, police are active everywhere, no shooting even at weddings. Crime is down 95 percent," he says.

The five-floor community center, called Jaffa Center, was built seven years ago and is funded by foreign organizations. A restaurant is being built on the top floor. It also has a theater and a small cinema, a guesthouse (NIS 60 a night including board ), a library and a media center.

"We're in a different era, we think differently than we did in '87 or 2000," says Nasrallah.

Yet his dream is to have the center move to Jaffa when the day comes, he says proudly.

"We give the kids courses on the right of return and teach them that the Israelis stole their lands. We've sent hundreds of camp children into Israel to see the villages and towns that were taken from us. We took them to Jaffa, Ramle."

"Our message is that without a doubt they will return to the places from which they were driven out," he says.

He points to his family's village on a map of Israel marked with villages from 1948. Earlier this week 35 children completed a leadership course at the center.

They prepared presentations with the map of Israel in relief. For them it has always been and remains the map of Palestine. Suddenly September seems a lot less frightening than the more distant future.

SALFIT - Colonel Avi Gil, commander of the Efraim Brigade, visited the Palestinian security headquarters in Salfit on Wednesday on his penultimate day in office. He had been here before, heading military operations, but this time he came as the guest of governor Isam Abu Bachar, who held a parting luncheon for him.

Abu Bachar, a former Fatah secretary general in Nablus who spent years in an Israeli prison, gave Gil a farewell gift - a large basket of candy. Gil gave the governor and two of his officers the book "100 People Who Changed the World (Life Books ). Over a table filled with goodies, the hosts and guests exchanged wishes and made speeches.

"We may not change history but we can certainly create a better reality," Gil told the governor and Palestinian commander.

The governor asked Israel to let him open a police station in A-Dik, and Gil promised to help. A few weeks ago a road from Salfit to Ariel was opened for public transportation, which is expected to make locals' life a lot easier.

At some stage Gil and his hosts started recounting anecdotes and roared with laughter at a joke Gil told.

"Maybe in the end we will be able to make peace with them," an officer said after the meeting. She probably did not see the Nakba Day posters hanging in the headquarters. Designed like a postcard, they bore the inscription: "From: refugee. To: Haifa. Dear Haifa, we will be coming back to you soon."