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The Middle East

Nablus Buckling Under West Bank Push

Conflict: The Israeli army rounds up scores of Palestinian men in the heart of a militant stronghold.

April 09, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NABLUS, West Bank — First came the missiles raining from Israeli helicopters, then, after daybreak, the armored personnel carriers blaring an ultimatum over loudspeakers in broken Arabic.

"We're stronger than you. You're outnumbered, and this is your last chance!" went one announcement. "Any gunman does not have long to live!"

By Monday night, the casbah--the heart of Nablus' old city and one of the last redoubts of Palestinians resisting Israel's massive West Bank offensive--had all but surrendered after a punishing five-day siege.

The intense gunfire unleashed at Israeli tanks, helicopters and soldiers ringing the old city throughout the weekend ended abruptly about 5 a.m. Monday. During the afternoon, scores of Palestinian men--some out of ammunition, some prodded by the army's threats to blow up their homes--ventured out with white flags to submit to Israeli detention, interrogation and identity checks.

Others wound up in Al Biek Mosque, converted by the siege into a makeshift field hospital and morgue. On Monday evening, it was a scene emblematic of the old city's suffering and humiliation.

Ten corpses lay side by side on prayer rugs in the mosque's tiny courtyard, wrapped in bloody sheets and blankets. They included a young militant in the green headband of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and an elderly man whose hands were raised in front of him.

Doctors said they had buried 14 other men nearby, on the mosque's grounds. The last was a volunteer who had transported the 13th body, just before Israeli snipers on rooftops cut him down.

Israeli soldiers, some of them ebullient and smiling, patrolled a dark, muddy alley leading past blasted-out homes and shops toward the mosque. Palestinian medical teams, dissuaded by Israeli snipers from entering the old city during the fighting, were allowed in late Monday to rush 48 wounded Palestinians from the mosque to two hospitals.

Ambulances raced to the edge of the casbah, and medics made their way on foot past bomb-sized craters in the street, the ruins of a bulldozed building, dangling wires from booby traps, discarded grenades and unexploded bombs.

The Israeli army said it was in control of the casbah, with soldiers patrolling strategic sections of its twisting maze of narrow alleys dating from the Roman Empire. But gunfire and explosions echoed sporadically early today from the casbah's Yasmin quarter, where a small number of militants were holding out.

The collapse of Palestinian resistance here left many of the casbah's 20,000 inhabitants puzzled.

"God only knows what happened to our fighters, why they stopped shooting," said Walid Jardeh, a 60-year-old taxi driver hunkered down in his home. "They were not prepared for this. Only God can help them now."

A Labyrinth Made for Guerrilla Warfare

The Israeli army's attack late Wednesday on Nablus, a militant stronghold, prompted at least 200 Palestinian fighters to gather in the casbah, a labyrinth made for guerrilla warfare. Its streets are too narrow to accommodate tanks. When the battle was over, some residents refused to believe that the militants had been defeated; some thought maybe they had slipped away through underground tunnels.

"There's an eerie silence over the whole neighborhood, which I've never heard before," Raneen abu Zahra, 22, who lives at the edge of the casbah, said after waking up Monday. "The only thing that breaks the quiet is the sound of tanks moving."

As the day wore on, men and boys between 18 and 40 complied with Israeli orders to surrender. They gathered in groups, their hands locked behind their necks, waiting in orderly lines to be processed by Israeli soldiers.

"We had to leave and come to them because we didn't know what they might do with us," said Abdullah Maslamani, a 25-year-old candy maker, who was waiting with about 50 other men at an Israeli checkpoint.

Maslamani said Israeli troops blew up a wall of his apartment Sunday night, just after he and 12 other family members had vacated the room that was demolished. The intruders locked the entire family in another room, occupying the rest of the apartment before finally leaving at 4:30 a.m.

A man living next door died of a heart attack during the late-night assault, and his son was killed resisting the Israelis, Maslamani said.

About 150 Palestinians surrendered here Monday, the army said. Some were released after security checks, and the others were taken to a school for more intensive interrogation and screening. The army says its 11-day-old West Bank offensive is aimed at rooting out Palestinian terrorist networks. It said troops had found 13 explosives workshops here, as well as quantities of ammunition, explosives and suicide bomb belts.

It was not clear how many of the men who surrendered in the old city were militants the army had faced in combat over the last several days. Many of those held were middle-aged and overweight. Two were grown and married sons of Nablus' mayor.

Nor was it clear how many combatants were among the dead.

Tawfi Gazal, a medic treating wounded at the mosque, said at least two men died while waiting for medical care--one of gangrene after being shot in the leg, another from a massive abdominal wound.

Life Continues Amid the Carnage

One of the few healthy people amid the stench of death was Hala Amireh, born Wednesday on the first day of the siege. Cradling her newborn daughter, Asmahan Amireh said the family found shelter in the mosque after an Israeli missile destroyed part of their house Sunday night and Israeli soldiers returned Monday with a threat to blow up the rest.

Ammar Amireh, a 26-year-old produce seller, said the soldiers tore up his ID card and gave them half an hour to leave.

Turning to admire his daughter, he said, "May God make her world better than ours."

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