Nablus Market - Michal Fattal - 15072011
Nablus shoppers examining the wares in the city’s Casbah market this week. Photo by Michal Fattal
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NABLUS - Abu-Imad's restaurant, facing the entrance to the Nasr mosque in the casbah of Nablus, has for years been one of the city's leading restaurants, but it is also a particularly well-known social institution in town. Abu-Imad, who is now 75, remembers how here, from the square between the restaurant and the mosque, demonstrations departed every Friday during the first intifada in the late 1980s. It was also here that members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade met during the second intifada, which began in 2000.

On Wednesday a reunion of sorts took place at the restaurant, attended by several leading formerly wanted men from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, coming to speak to Haaretz about the current situation, about the amnesty they received from Israel and about what they expect in the lead up to September's possible Palestinian bid for recognition of an independent state at the United Nations.

They were the ones who led the fighting against Israel between 2000 and 2008, but they repeated again and again in our conversation that they wouldn't join in again if a third intifada broke out.

One of the group, S., who is now about 40 and a father of three who works in a family shop in the casbah, was wanted by Israel between 2002 and 2008. He works in the store with his brother, who was also wanted by Israel. A third brother died carrying out a terrorist attack in Kfar Sava in which five Israelis were killed.

M., who also works in the casbah and is now 38, was one of the most wanted members of the organization in the West Bank, and particularly in Nablus, between 2003 and 2008.

L., who evaded the Israeli army for years, later joined the Palestinian Authority's general intelligence service.

The Nablus casbah, like the Balata refugee camp a few kilometers away, is etched in Palestinian consciousness as a stronghold of opposition to Israel. The casbah's tunnels and passageways and its relative inaccessibility to motor traffic made the area a refuge for many of the city's wanted men.

"Here under us is one of the tunnels where we hid," said M. on a tour around the casbah. "The [Israeli] soldiers would open the tunnels and then either shoot inside or throw hand grenades in," he recalled. "Here, right next to where there was a jail during the [Ottoman] Turkish period, I was wounded by shots from the soldiers."

The former comrades stood next to a large natural water reservoir concealed in a house. "The secret of Nablus' tehina, knafeh [a sweet pastry] and soap is because of the special water we have in the city. You can drink it freely from right here," said S. proudly.

The market was packed with hundreds of shoppers and getting through the crowds was not easy, but S. and other merchants still claim that business is slow in Nablus. "A week before the amnesty, I got married," said S., adding: "Now my big battle is for my children's future. I want to rear them like I should, to educate them. That's my goal."

He was almost 37 when he got married, old by Palestinian standards. M., too, only married in 2008 at 35.

At first after the amnesty, the Palestinian Authority required that they remain in confinement in facilities under the oversight of the Palestinian security forces, but later they were only required to spend the night there and they now have complete freedom of movement. In return, they had to turn in their weapons and refrain from involvement in terrorist activity. Under the amnesty, the Shin Bet security service arranged for full or partial pardons for nearly 400 former terrorists.

L. said the question of whether or not there would be a third intifada was up to Israel. "The Palestinian Authority wants to calm the situation and is doing so. We're living at a time when people are less interested in the homeland and more in their salaries."

The talk of whether or not there will be an intifada is for nothing, he stated. "The second intifada took us 20 years backwards - the deaths, the siege on the cities - so in my opinion there won't be a third intifada. But a reaction following September will definitely come. The young people will take to the streets, and it very much depends on how the Israelis will respond," he said.

S. agrees with L. for the most part: "In the past, the economic situation was very difficult. Now it's better, but the diplomatic stalemate could create a problem. Me? All I want to do is eat and sleep. I'm thinking about my children. I don't think there will be a third intifada. We have become your defenders. We, the Palestinians, are protecting you from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But you want Hamas. You are seeking unrest and instability. Ultimately, if something happens it's because of how the settlers hurt the Palestinians and also because the improvement in the economy stops."

The Palestinians, he adds, have no great expectations that the UN will recognize a Palestinian state in September.

In another measure of the Palestinian mood, an opinion poll commissioned by the group The Israel Project, which dispenses information to journalists and others about Israel and the Middle East, showed that about 65 percent of Palestinians polled said they thought now was the time for diplomatic contacts, while 30 percent saw the current period as the time for violent resistance. On the other hand, only 34 percent favored a two-state solution involving a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state. Furthermore, 66 percent favored a two-state solution as only a first step to be followed by a Palestinian state replacing Israel.

In other words, most Palestinians don't want an intifada in September, but they would be pleased if Israel ultimately disappeared.