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Nablus: The Locus of Palestinian Civil War?

On 25 November 2003, Baraq Shaka’a, of Jordan, was ascending the staircase of relatives in Nablus for a holiday visit on the occasion of Id al-Fitr family visit. Without warning he was shot dead by a squad of gunmen hiding in a dark alley of Nablus’ ancient Casaba. Shaka’a’s death was probably a case of mistaken identity. The hit team—members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades—had apparently meant to kill his brother, Ghassan Shak’a. Ghassan Shaka’a is not only the mayor of Nablus, but is also a member of the PLO Executive Committee, and of Arafat’s Security Supreme Committee based in the Muqata’a. Had the hit succeeded, it would have been the first purely political assassination in the Palestinian Authority. The result could have been what many have been predicting for some time, a civil war (fitna). But this would not have been civil war in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas. Rather, it would have been a civil war in Nablus between Fatah and Fatah.

Why Nablus?

The answer can tell us something about the real function of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and the possible role of Nablus in future changes in the PA.

Friction between the aristocratic families of Nablus and its environs are nothing new. These local tensions originated in the area’s feudal history, when the main families of Nablus controlled all aspects of life in the nearby villages. The influx of refugees into the neighborhoods along Nablus’s main thoroughfare has only exacerbated the tension.

However, what were previously purely local squabbles have taken on a larger aspect, causing major splits within the Fatah organization and often breaking into open violence. Fatah terrorist wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have taken the side of the historically “oppressed”, while the political-economic wing of the organization took the part of the ruling families—the “oppressors.”

The main families of Nablus—the Masri, Kan’an, Shak’a, Tuqan, and Shuman families—are united in what has become known as the Masri confederation. Naturally, this group seeks to further its interests via economic means. The al-Aqsa Brigades, based in the refugee camps have a different strategy; their activities take the form of organized terrorism—and not only against Israelis. In fact, attacks against Israeli civilians are merely a tool in the wider struggle. These attacks are a means whereby the al-Aqsa Brigades gain national legitimacy, in order to gain leverage in the internal struggle against the Masri confederation. The Brigades’ popularity in Nablus—gained through its attacks in the buses and cafes of Israel—has given weight to their designation of the Masri’s as Takhwin, or traitors. This designation is the legitimatizing the murder of Nablus’s traditional leadership.

A Deep-rooted schism

In an economic conference held in Nablus back in 1997, major differences appeared between the Masris on the one hand and the then PA finance minister, the Muhammad Zuhdi Nashashibi on the other. Nashashibi called on the wealthy Palestinian families to put their money under the control of the PA, to be administered by an economic committee controlled by the PLO. The astonished families told the PA minister that only a free market economy could allow a future Palestine to avoid the fate of Somalia.

In the intervening years, both parties have organized militias; the Masris were allied with Jibril Rajub’s Preventive Security, while the refugee camps were represented by Force 17, which was linked to the governor, Mahmud al-Alul.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, born of the Intifada, posed a threat not only to the aristocratic families of Nablus, but also to the entire Palestinian middle class and the political echelons of the PLO. It is no wonder that Fatah senior political figures, such as Abu Mazen, wanted the Martyrs Brigades dismantled. The Brigades, in their turn, were the prime mover in toppling most of Abu Mazen nominations, one after the other. They struck the final blow aginst Abu Mazen when they stormed the PLC building during his address to the constituency. It was here that the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades show the true success of their attacks on Israelis—by enhancing their reputation as the leader of the ‘resistance’ against Israel, they became an efficient tool to protect the terrorist wing of the PLO against the “plots” of the political leadership.

As far as the Nablus aristocracy is concerned, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades aim to sabotage all attempts by the city’s middle class leadership to lead the city out of the current economic mire. The economic-minded middle class seeks to lead the way toward reconciliation and moderation, with an eye toward encouraging investment. It is this process that the al-Aqsa Martyrs view as the greatest threat to the Muqawama – Resistance. The ideal of a modern and progressive leadership is seen as a threat to the current PLO government.

The Masri confederation is seen as a threat, not only in providing an alternative to the PLO in economic leadership. They were also closely linked to the Jordanian system that ruled the West Bank from 1948 until 1967. If any thoughts arise regarding a return to the Palestinian-Jordanian joint model—whether as a confederation or in some other configuration, Nablus will be the center of affairs. The intifada turned the tide against the Masris. Any return to the Jordanian-Palestinian formula could turn the tide again in their favor. Ramallah knows this, which is why Nablus is in ruins, while Ramallah is relatively intact.

Could it be that the Intifada was concentrated in Nablus on purpose, while there is no “resistance” in Ramallah?