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THE MIDDLE EAST

A Trail of Destruction Scars Nablus' Old City

April 14, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NABLUS, West Bank — For all the destruction inflicted on Palestinian property by a 2-week-old military onslaught, nothing pains Arafat Hinno like what he sees in the old city of Nablus.

Structures hundreds of years old--a Byzantine basilica, Ottoman-era domed roofs, a convent and thick-walled stone houses--were damaged in Israel's pursuit of Palestinian gunmen. The casbah, as the old city is known, is now a mess of dangling wires and cables, water gushing from broken pipes, and thick dust that chokes the air and coats everything in sight.

"A modern city can be rebuilt--it's nothing special," said Hinno, a native of the casbah. "But an old town, with its historic places, this is the most miserable thing."

Among the buildings destroyed by Israeli tank fire or bulldozers was the casbah home of the Shobi family. The Shobis were still inside when the Israelis attacked, neighbors said. On Saturday, rescue workers who for days had been digging through the rubble retrieved the bodies of three of the Shobi children and their mother; the body of the father, Samir Shobi, was found Friday. Three other family members also were killed.

But also Saturday, rescuers discovered two other members of the family still alive. The rescuers plucked the couple--Abdullah Shobi and his wife, Shamsa--from their living room, which was under a mass of stone and dirt.

The recoveries seemed to bolster allegations that the Israeli army--as it invaded towns and cities across the West Bank and met stiff resistance--bulldozed homes with people still in them. Similar tales have emerged from the Jenin refugee camp, site of the most widespread destruction and highest death toll in any of the fighting.

An army spokeswoman said Saturday that efforts are always made to notify the residents of a home that is to be demolished. She said the army destroys only buildings that have been used as explosives factories or sniper positions.

The Shobis' neighbors gave a different account. Although fighting, gunfire and explosions had raged for days, the family was not involved. The neighbors said the bulldozer approached from the plaza in front of the Shobi home and began attacking. The building collapsed, with the family inside.

"They were shouting, 'Help us! Help us!' " neighbor Amani Ghanem said of the crushed people. "We tried to help them."

Nablus is the Palestinians' largest city, and it was the cradle of both intifadas: The 1987 uprising started here, and the core armed leaders of the current Palestinian revolt came from Nablus. It has always been a politically charged city, home to unions, refugees and militants. The old city dates to the Roman Empire.

Palestinians such as Hinno, a former activist with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement who works for an insurance company, say Israel's assault on Nablus was an attack on the historical and the cultural parts of Palestinian society, as well as an attack on its traditional spirit of resistance.

Hinno comes from a family that has lived in the old city "for 800 years." His sister Rokaya lives in what was one of the first houses to be searched by Israeli troops who invaded last week. The family was herded into a single room. Her brother was taken away. (He was one of about 4,000 Palestinian men who have been detained in Israel's sweep for suicide bombers and other terrorists, but he was later released.)

Rokaya said that as soon as the soldiers left, she peered out her door and down the street. She saw Abu Talad, a white-haired policeman from the Gaza Strip, dead in what she described as a kneeling position. She saw another man, Imad Kasua, trapped under the ruins of his house, bleeding to death.

The three-story Kasua house was one of several private homes that had been hit by tank rounds or heavy-caliber machine-gun fire, or had been torched. Saladin the Great Mosque, built from a Byzantine basilica, apparently had been rammed by a tank or bulldozer. The 250-year-old St. Demetrius convent was badly damaged by tank fire, Father Economus George Awad said. The 56-year-old priest said he had to crawl out of the building to safety.

Two turn-of-the-century soap factories received the heaviest destruction in the old city. Soap was once Nablus' main export, renowned for the way it was made. Underneath the landmark factories, the army says, Palestinian militants had constructed an explosives lab, one of 13 discovered in the old city.

Palestinian residents are convinced that the army used F-16 warplanes to bomb the factories. The army says that it used only tank shells and that internal explosions from the bomb-making materials caused the more extensive damage.

Whatever the explanation, the 75-yard-long gash in the middle of the old city testifies to utter destruction. It contains a vast pile of rubble. Residents say a cabal of fighters was hiding at the soap factory when Israel attacked, and they believe that bodies remain underneath the ruins.

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