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Set for Battle With Israelis : Palestinian Street Teams Well-Drilled for Combat

February 14, 1988|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

NABLUS, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Only a fierce downpour kept the war from coming to Sheik Mussalem Street on Saturday.

For a while, as an Israeli army patrol snaked its way through the narrow, twisting streets of the casbah, the old quarter of Nablus, a confrontation seemed inevitable. Tension had been running high in Nablus since soldiers shot and killed two Palestinian youths in a battle with rock- and bottle-throwing protesters the day before. Now, as an army patrol entered their neighborhood, the people of the casbah appeared ready, even eager, to do battle once again.

Informed of the patrol's presence by lookouts posted on rooftops and on street corners, the people along Sheik Mussalem Street quickly grouped into organized teams, went to their designated positions and began to get ready, each performing his or her pre-assigned task.

Some youths picked up small boulders the size of watermelons and hurled them to the ground, breaking off baseball-sized chunks to throw at the soldiers. Others built bonfires and barricades from rocks, scrap metal and other stockpiled debris while still others, the bravest and fastest among them, limbered up their throwing arms for the coming battle by hurling rocks down the now deserted street.

"They are the offensive team," said Jamal, a young Palestinian neighborhood leader who, while supervising the preparations, explained the protesters' tactics to a small group of visiting reporters.

"Each area has a team led by a team leader," said Jamal, "and each team has an offensive and a defensive wing."

Jamal would not give his last name or divulge other personal information for security reasons. However, his importance in the casbah is such that he supervises several of the other team leaders.

"When a patrol comes, the youths assigned to offense hurl stones at them," Jamal explained. When the youths are forced to disperse by the soldiers, who fire back with both rubber bullets and live ammunition, those assigned to defense cover their retreat by throwing more stones, he added.

"Everybody knows where to go. Everybody is assigned a specific area and task," he continued. "Those on offense have to be the most courageous and the quickest. . . . The people on defense have slingshots for greater range. . . . The role of the women is to break up stones, give first aid and shout encouragement to the men."

When the latest round of unrest began in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip more than two months ago, many analysts, Arab and Israeli, viewed the protests as a spontaneous outburst of anger and frustration--a volcano of despair finally erupting after 20 years of increasingly harsh Israeli rule. Even the Palestine Liberation Organization, which claims to speak for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories, seemed surprised and unprepared for the turn of events.

But according to Jamal and other young activists in Nablus and other parts of the West Bank, the PLO has since reasserted its control and is now providing the organizational tactics necessary to prolong the uprising, in which at least 54 Palestinians have been killed.

Organized Response

"In the beginning, when it started, it was spontaneous. But by the second week or so, supporters of the PLO took over all the organizational activity," Jamal said. "Now, all the activity, everything you see here, is organized by the Unified Command of the Uprising."

The Unified National Leadership for the Uprising in the Occupied Territories is the name of a coalition of PLO groups and their supporters, who pass information and instructions chiefly by word of mouth. The command called for a commercial strike in Nablus on Saturday and, apart from a few street corner fruit vendors, the largest city on the West Bank was shut tight. The command has also called for a widening of the strike today, when Arab-owned shops and services throughout the territories are expected to be closed.

The speed and alacrity with which the people of Sheik Mussalem Street and its adjacent streets and alleyways prepared to greet the soldiers certainly suggested a high degree of organization, at least on the neighborhood level.

Angry Crowd

When four Western reporters arrived Saturday morning to interview some of the local residents at random, they were quickly surrounded by a crowd of angry men and giggling small children, all trying to talk at once.

"We are striking because two people were killed here yesterday. As long as Israel keeps provoking us, we are not going to quit," one elderly man said. "We don't want to destroy Israel. We are willing to live alongside Israelis, but they must recognize our right to self-determination too," said someone else.

"Israelis should remember what Hitler did to them and not treat us the same way," shouted another voice from within the now sizable crowd.

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