Mountain of Fire: How Nablus became the heart of the Palestinian struggle

14 min read
West Bank
26 September, 2022

The narrow alleyways of Nablus’ old city were in near total darkness as the sound of an approaching car grew louder. A pair of front lights suddenly appeared at the end of the road, exposing the closed storefronts on both sides of what during the day is a busy, noisy street.

The car made its way deep into the Yasmina neighbourhood, through the maze-like streets and massive stone walls of centuries-old houses. It was 3:30am on Sunday, 24 July 2022, and in the car travelled uniformed Israeli soldiers, the advance guard of a larger Israeli force which had come in search of Palestinian militants.

Minutes later, the area transforms into a battleground. Stray bullets fly in every direction as the Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian gunmen. The undercover car and another vehicle meters away from it catch fire, while sounds of explosion wake up local residents. More Israeli forces join the fight and surround an old house, before targeting it with missiles.

After four hours of fighting, Israeli forces withdraw, and thousands of Palestinians from all over Nablus rush into the old city at the news of the Israeli raid. Residents of Yasmina wake up to burning cars, cables torn out of walls, exploded water tanks, and thousands of bullet cartridges covering the ground; a scene many haven’t witnessed since the Israeli invasion of Nablus in 2002, during the Second Intifada.

"Nablus has played an important role in Palestinian politics since the British mandate period"

Meanwhile, local media announced that ten Palestinians had been wounded by live fire, including one in the head, and that two were killed; 22-year-old Mohammad Azizi and 29-year-old Aboud Suboh.

Israeli military raids into Nablus have become more frequent since the rise in Israeli incursions in the northern West Bank following the Gilboa prison break one year ago. However, confrontations with occupying Israeli forces are not a new phenomenon in the historical West Bank city.

Nablus, nicknamed ‘Jabal Al-Nar’, Arabic for ‘Mountain of Fire’, a name reportedly given by Napoleon during his campaign in the Orient according to local legend, has always been at the crossroads, sometimes even at the starting point, of the Palestinian struggle.

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A hotbed of Palestinian nationalism

Nablus has played an important role in Palestinian politics since the British mandate period. It was in Nablus, on 19 April 1936, that leaders of the Palestinian national movement met in one of the city’s famous olive oil soap factories and decided to declare a general strike against British rule. The strike evolved into a full-scale armed revolt against the British that lasted until 1939.

It was in Nablus too that the national poet of Palestine at the time, Ibrahim Touqan, wrote the lyrics of ‘Mawtini’ (My Homeland) in 1934, which became the unofficial anthem of Palestine, sang every morning in all Palestinian schools to this day.

After the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, Nablus hosted in its surroundings three refugee camps; Ain Al-May, Askar and Balata. These refugee camps would later have a central role in Nablus’ influence on Palestinian politics after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967. However, the first signs of Palestinian militantism in Nablus began in its historical centre, the old city known as the ‘Qasbah’.

“Armed actions against Israeli occupation in Nablus began as early as August 1967, in both Nablus city and the surrounding countryside,” Jerusalem-based Palestinian historian Bilal Shalash explained to The New Arab.

“Soon, Israeli forces realised that there was a strong organised structure of Palestinian militants, mainly based in the Qasbah, and began a fierce campaign to dismantle it in late September of the first year of the occupation,” Shalash details. 

Among the members and leaders of that early Palestinian militant movement in Nablus were several women. The most famous of them is Shadia Abu Ghazalah, a native of Nablus’ old city in her twenties, who at the time led a network of female urban guerrillas in the city. She was killed while preparing an explosive in her house in November 1968.

The spearhead of home-based leadership

In the 1970s, the Palestinian national movement began to gain a more political aspect in the occupied territories. Nablus, again, was among the first cities to reflect this development.

In 1976, Israel decided to allow municipal elections in the occupied territories. The move aimed to create a local leadership under Israeli control as a counterweight to the rising international recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the representative of the Palestinian people.

However, a number of local prominent figures, known at the time to be unofficially close to the PLO, formed lists of ‘Patriotic Candidates’ and won elections in key West Bank cities. Nablus was the most significant of them.

Bassam Al-Shakaa, a life-long Arab nationalist with close ties to the PLO and the public face of one of Nablus’ most prestigious families, became the mayor of Nablus. He had co-founded and became the leader of the ‘National Orientation Committee’. A coalition of trade unions, parties, civil society organisations and charities, it coordinated social work and protest activities against Israeli settlements and occupation policies.

Palestinians protest in Nablus during the First Intifada in 1988. [Photo by © Patrick Robert/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images]

On 2 June 1980, Al-Shakaa was the target of a bomb attack by Israeli religious settlers close to the Gush Emunim settler organisation. He survived the attack but lost both his legs. Two years later, he was dismissed from his position as mayor of Nablus by Israeli authorities.

During the same period, a new generation of Palestinian militants was forming. In her book, 'Growing Up Palestinian: Israeli Occupation and The Intifada Generation', Letitia Bucaille describes how working-class young Palestinians began to rebuild the organisational structures for Palestinian factions in Nablus.

These structures provided the foundations for the first Palestinian mass uprising against Israeli occupation in the occupied territories - the First Intifada.

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Between two Intifadas

Although the First Intifada started on 8 December 1987 in Jabalia, in the northern Gaza Strip, and then spread to the West Bank, the refugee camp of Balata, at the exact eastern entrance to Nablus city, was already in a state of revolt well before then.

“Since 1982 [...] stones were thrown day and night in Balata, even though there were army lookouts on the rooftops for weeks on end. Molotov cocktails became such a problem that Israeli army patrols avoided the centre of the camp as much as they could,” Bucaille quotes one of Nablus’ militants of the early 1980s as saying.

After the First Intifada and the signing of the Oslo accords, Palestinian politics centred around the efforts of state-building, where traditional prominent figures and families regained a central role, alongside the newly-arrived members of the PLO who returned from exile.

"In April of 2002, Israel launched a massive offensive against West Bank cities aiming to crush the Second Intifada. Nablus was the main target"

Many of the First Intifada's working-class young militants joined the newly established Palestinian Authority security forces. Others turned towards Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). But it wasn’t long before they all found themselves in the same position of rebellion, once again.

Shortly after the Second Intifada broke out in September 2000, and following the particularly violent Israeli response to it, the uprising took on a militarised component. Several Palestinian armed groups emerged, taking action against Israeli forces and settlers, and sending suicide bombers into Israel, killing hundreds of Israelis. Nablus competed with Jenin in the Israeli press for nicknames such as ‘the hornets’ nest’.

One example of Nablus’ militants during this period was Nayef Abu Sharkh. A life-long Fatah member who was imprisoned by Israel for the best part of the First Intifada. He then joined the PA’s security forces.

When the Second Intifada started, Abu Sharkh was among the key founders of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a military wing linked to Fatah. He was killed in 2004 in an Israeli military raid on his hideout in Nablus, alongside two other fighters; Jaafar Al-Masri, from Hamas, and Fadi Al-Bahti, from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

An Israeli tank patrols the streets of Balata refugee camp during a military operation in the West Bank city of Nablus on 28 August 2003. [Getty]
2002: A turning point

In April of 2002, Israel launched a massive offensive against West Bank cities aiming to crush the Second Intifada. Nablus was the main target.

“During the invasion, the Balata refugee camp and the eastern part of Nablus, where I live, were completely out of electricity for two weeks,” Ameen Abu Wardeh, a resident of Nablus and a journalist who has been covering events in the city for over 25 years, told The New Arab.

“We used car batteries to make the fridge work and keep food edible for as long as possible, because the Israeli army had imposed a curfew on the entire city, shooting at anything that moved in the streets,” he details.

“The curfew was partially eased 17 days into the beginning of the invasion, so I was able to go to the old city, where my colleagues from international outlets were already covering the events, among whom was Shireen Abu Akleh,” he points out.

“What I saw in the old city was horrible. I remember that the article that I wrote that day was titled ‘The Smell of Blood and Gunpowder in Nablus’ because that was exactly what the old city smelled like,” describes Abu Wardeh.

"Although the invasion [of 2002] significantly weakened Palestinian groups and caused large damage to Palestinian cities, in Nablus it did not put an end to Palestinian militant activity"

“Israeli bulldozers had turned many old buildings into piles of rubble, burying entire families under the rubble of their houses, like the Shueibi family, of whom eight members were killed, including all three children, and only the grandparents survived,” he added.

Although the invasion significantly weakened Palestinian groups and caused large damage to Palestinian cities, in Nablus it did not put an end to Palestinian militant activity. Palestinian gunmen continued to challenge Israeli forces well after 2002.

“These militants were no longer the large organisational structures of the Second Intifada,” explains Ameen Abu Wardeh. “They were individuals who grouped inside the old city or in the refugee camps, and performed shootings at Israeli outposts and then waited for Israeli forces to come for them inside Nablus and clashed with them.”

Names like Ahmed Jayousi, Anas Al-Sheikh, and Bashar Hanani, three militants killed by Israeli forces in western Nablus in 2005, or Fadi Qafisheh and Basem Abu Sariyeh, killed inside the old city in 2006 and 2007, marked that period in Nablus.

Another was Ahmed Sanaqrah, the 21-year-old leader whom Israeli forces tried to kill four times before succeeding in the Balata refugee camp in 2008.

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'The need to move on'

During the post-Intifada years, as Israeli restrictions on movement gradually eased in West Bank cities, Nablus remained under tight closure, with Israeli forces restricting movement in and out of the city constantly.

“This closure continued until 2009 and resulted in the development of Nablus' surrounding villages at the expense of the city itself,” explains Ameen Abu Wardeh. “Villages like Huwara began to see all kinds of businesses opening to meet people’s needs, to the point that the famous Nablus ‘Knafeh’ sweet and cheese patisserie began to be made and sold in Huwara, outside of Nablus,” he points out.

The historical Al-Najah University in Nablus, where Ibrahim Touqan had taught when it was only a college in the 1930s, saw a dramatic drop in students at the same time that the new American-fashioned Arab American University was established near Jenin, and grew its student body rapidly.

In November 2008, some 240 businessmen from across the Arab world held the ‘Palestine Investment Conference’ in Nablus and began to prepare for the next phase. The closure of Nablus was finally eased in 2009, and investment began to pour into the city in an attempt to catch up with the transformation that Ramallah had been experiencing since 2005.

“It was an odd situation, where one could see billboards for movies in cinemas and publicity banners side by side with posters of Palestinian ‘martyrs’ recently killed,” describes Abu Wardeh. “It felt like Nablus was divided between emotion and reason, the memory of all that had just happened, and the need to move on”.

In this file photo taken on July 24, 2022, commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade Ibrahim al-Nabulsi walks in the West Bank city of Nablus
Commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade Ibrahim al-Nabulsi walks in the West Bank city of Nablus on 24 July 2022. [Getty]
A new escalation: 2021-2022

In 2021, it seemed as though Nablus had finally moved on, as the city had recently become a main attraction for tourism, which skyrocketed in Palestine between 2017 and 2019. The old city had been rebuilt, and the old ‘Khan Al-Wakaleh’ guest house which had been partially destroyed by Israeli forces in 2002 had been rehabilitated as a glamorous hotel and restaurant.

The overall situation in the Palestinian territories, however, was heating up. In May, an Israeli court deadline approached on the expulsion of some 28 Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem, mobilising Palestinians across the Green Line to protest Israeli expulsion plans.

The ‘May uprising’ swept across the West Bank and Palestinian towns in Israel, before Palestinian factions in Gaza started an armed escalation with Israel.

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Then in September, six Palestinian prisoners escaped from the high-security Israeli prison of Gilboa, galvanising the imagination of Palestinians. The escapees were recaptured in the two weeks that followed, but the impact couldn’t be reversed.

As Israeli forces increased their military raids in the northern West Bank, especially in Jenin, where two of the Gilboa prison breakers had hidden, Palestinian youths began to confront Israeli incursions with guns, and a new generation of Palestinian militants began to show its face.

In December, a shooting attack at an Israeli civilian car between Nablus and Jenin killed an Israeli settler. Israel accused two men from Silat Al-Harethiya, in Jenin, but the event sparked violent attacks by Israeli settlers in the Nablus region too, who raided Palestinian villages in their hundreds, throwing stones at villagers’ houses and attempting to torch crops and property.

In Nablus city, this reaction by settlers resulted in more incursions into Joseph's Tomb, a religious site in the eastern part of the city.

“The site is an Ottoman-era tomb of a local holy man called Yousef Dweikat,” says Abu Wardeh. “Shrines of holy people are found all over Palestine, as they are part of popular beliefs and folk tradition, but Israeli religious settlers decided that this was the tomb of Joseph, son of Jacob, who supposedly died in Egypt, in his glory, thousands of years ago,” he exclaims.

"Ibrahim Nabulsi became a symbol of Nablus' new generation of fighters after the assassination of his comrades"

“When the settlers want to come and pray at the shrine, the Israeli army first raids the eastern part of the city, tear-gases the entire area, shoots at anything moving and places snipers on rooftops, then the settlers’ buses move in,” details Abu Wardeh.

As with everywhere in the West Bank, such raids are met by local youths who confront Israeli forces by throwing stones at them, and occasionally Molotov cocktails. Since April, however, gunmen have also confronted Israeli raids with gunfire. Israeli forces, in turn, open fire at any Palestinian who approaches them. Many of them are civilians, all of them young.

In April, an Israeli bullet killed 34-year-old Mohammad Assaf. He was a lawyer and activist in the legal defence of Palestinian lands threatened with takeover by Israeli settlers. He was also the father of three children.

In May, another Israeli bullet killed Ghaith Yameen, a 16-year-old 10th-grader. In mid-August, another raid at Joseph's Tomb killed 19-year-old Waseem Khalifa, a 19-year-old stallkeeper. And in late August, 25-year-old Mohammad Arayshi, a sweetcorn seller at a park in Nablus, died of wounds he sustained two weeks earlier from Israeli gunfire while throwing stones during another raid on the city.

Armed youths during the commemoration of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army in military operations in Balata refugee camp on 24 August 2022 in Nablus. [Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]
Israeli assassinations

Israeli forces, meanwhile, began to target Palestinian militants individually through undercover attacks. In February, three militants were ambushed while travelling in a car in Nablus’ city centre. An Israeli special forces team hidden in a civilian minibus had opened fire at the car and killed the three men.

The attack provoked a wave of rage in Nablus and in the West Bank. At the mass funeral of the three men, one gunman appeared with his face uncovered, holding a rifle vertically with one hand and holding the coffin of one of the killed men with the other, tears streaming down his face.

Ibrahim Nabulsi became a symbol of Nablus’ new generation of fighters after the assassination of his comrades. He later gave an interview to Palestinian media where he said that he considered himself a ‘martyr’ in waiting.

On 24 July, Israeli undercover forces raided Nablus’ Yasmina neighbourhood in the old city and killed Mohammad Aizi and Aboud Suboh in the most violent raid on the city since 2002 according to residents. However, Israeli soldiers missed Nabulsi.

"These young men do not belong to any particular Palestinian faction. They are very young, with little or no political past affiliation, contrary to the generation of the Second Intifada, which allows them to surpass all political differences and build their loyalty to each other"

Then on 9 August before dawn, another Israeli force sneaked into the old city and clashed with Palestinian gunmen, before surrounding an old house. The gunfight lasted for two hours, during which Israeli forces blocked all entrances to the old city and targeted the surrounded house with ground missiles.

Later, the media announced the death of Ibrahim Nabulsi, 26, Islam Suboh, 25, and a teenager who was near the location, Hussein Jamal Taha, aged 16.

“These young men do not belong to any particular Palestinian faction,” points out Ameen Abu Wardeh. “They are very young, with little or no political past affiliation, contrary to the generation of the Second Intifada, which allows them to surpass all political differences and build their loyalty to each other in the field,” he adds.

Ibrahim Nabulsi was claimed by the Al-Aqsa Brigades as one of its commanders. He also appeared in a picture posing in front of a PIJ flag, and in another, he appeared with a known Hamas militant.

In the last voice recording he sent to local journalists, minutes before dying, Nabulsi left an unusual message, different from the traditional last words of Palestinian militants.

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Without any political, religious, or ideological references, without eloquence or rhetorical phrases, in a raw, Nablus street accent, Nabulsi told his friends: “By your honour, let no one drop the gun, and tell my mother that I love her”.

The pictures of Nabulsi, Suboh, and Azizi joined those of the more than 20 Palestinians killed in Nablus since the beginning of 2022, and those from previous years, hanging on the walls of the city.

Outside the ‘Qasbah’, in Nablus's main square, and along commercial streets, posters of gunmen and civilians killed by Israel overlook the silence of Nablus' streets at night, guarding the memory of an unfolding story.

It is one of a city pulled between the reality of occupation and the need to move on, all the while bracing for the next Israeli raid.

Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Follow him on Twitter: @QassaMMuaddi