Back to the Casbah
Veterans of the Intifada recall the past and look to the future of the Palestinian struggle.
28 July 2000
Nasser Juma drove around Nablus with us, going from apartment building to apartment building, looking for a place where we could talk. We did not meet as agreed, because Juma had gone instead to speak with the city's chief of intelligence. We finally encountered him by sheer chance as he drove his tiny Daihatsu Charade through the city streets. Nasser was in constant, restless motion; his somewhat frenzied air may be the result of his many years as a fugitive. Finally we arrived at the gallery floor of a local carpentry shop, across from the first elementary school he ever attended, perhaps also an old hideaway.
We spent the next few hours there with Juma, one of the most fascinating of the Intifada heroes, talking against the backdrop of a wooden Jerusalem carved in relief by local carpenters. Will Juma and his friends resume their violent struggle? If so, what form will it take? As the Camp David summit went on, seeming as likely to fail as it did to succeed, Juma was reminiscing about his own long and winding road as a leader of the Palestinian popular uprising and a prisoner in both Israeli and Palestinian prisons.
Nablus was the most difficult city in the territories back then. The narrow streets of the dark, enclosed and eerie casbah were terrorized by the "Fatah Hawks," "Black Panthers" and "Red Eagles." On Sunday this week, the Nablus market was teeming with life. It was hard to imagine this place reverting to the days when boys shot iron marbles down its alleys and were in turn fired upon by Israeli soldiers, often with fatal results. It's hard to believe that Israeli army jeeps once raced through a barrage of Molotov cocktails and rocks down these ancient stone alleys, now renovated and covered with a decorative ceiling, overflowing with people and goods.
Juma was then in his early twenties. One of his subordinates was Ahmed Tabuk, the so-called "Casbah Killer," who shot in the kneecaps 40 Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel and killed four of them. Juma, now 34, was born in 1966, a year before the Israeli occupation began. During the Intifada, he headed the Nablus shabiba, the Fatah youth movement. Protest leaflets and military action, phone calls from Arafat in Tunis, long months of hiding, eight years in an Israeli prison, 14 months in a Palestinian prison, severe torture during interrogation in both - all these make up the turbulent biography of this surprisingly soft-spoken Palestinian man.
About two years ago, Juma considered leaving all this behind and joining his English girlfriend in London, who had often visited him in the Palestinian prison in Jericho. But she moved to Nigeria, and Juma returned here, still possessed by the fight. Recently he was elected to various Fatah institutions, though the notion of retiring makes him smile. This is probably not the last they'll hear of him, even though much of his time is now spent at the map-making office he runs with his brother. Occasionally they rely on Israeli companies for aerial photographs. His meeting with the chief of intelligence was about preparing for upcoming events. That immediate future, as well as the past, was also the topic of our conversation with him.
With his Valentino jeans, five-o'clock shadow and nearly clean-shaven head, Juma has a distinctly Western look about him. He does not drink coffee nor smoke, carries two cellular phones - one Palestinian, the other Israeli - and sports a winning smile and considerable personal charm.
The streets of Nablus still bear the pictures of his legendary close friend, Mahmoud Jamayel, tortured to death in a Palestinian prison exactly four years ago. Juma was also in prison at the time. His wardens kept the news of his friend's death from him for almost two and a half months. I went then to his sister's spacious house for lunch and was told, off the record, of the family's great concern for Juma. He was also tortured to the point of hospitalization, beaten, hung upside down from the ceiling. More fortunate than his friend, he survived.
It is still not clear exactly why these leaders of the Intifada found themselves in such bitter conflict with the Palestinian Authority, or why they were arrested and interrogated. Rumors at the time hinted at a power struggle within newly liberated Nablus. Juma and Jamayel were said to possess a mysterious archive of dark secrets involving Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shaka. Whatever the answer, Juma now sounds as though he has settled his differences with the Palestinian Authority and its chairman, Yasser Arafat. The latter invited him to a reconciliatory meeting four days after his release from the Palestinian prison, embraced him warmly, and left no room for dissent. Who is Arafat to him? "I cannot imagine the Palestinian people without him," he says of the man who ordered his arrest and torture.
Before that, he had spent eight years in an Israeli prison, having been declared a fugitive as early as 1988, when the Intifada had just begun. After an initial two years in prison, he was released and swiftly became a fugitive again. He spent every night in a different bed. He believed then that one of his duties was to stop the wholesale killing of Palestinian collaborators in the Nablus alleyways. Those were the days when Juma and his friends gradually seized control of the streets from Israel's Palestinian policemen. Many of his friends were killed, others were sent to prison; some have not yet been released.
On October 25, 1991, Juma himself was recaptured. He will never forget that day, a Friday, when Israel's undercover units were always most likely to act. Juma asked his men, as he did every Friday, to lay low. "But I," he smiles, "made a big mistake."
Walking down the street, he began to have a bad feeling. When he reached the casbah, he saw a friend of his, surrounded by people. The friend gestured to him, as though in need of assistance. Juma walked toward him. When he was 15 meters away, he realized that the carpet salesmen surrounding his friend were in fact disguised Israeli soldiers, their weapons hidden under the carpets. They had threatened his friend at gunpoint, forcing him to call Juma over. It was too late to escape. Hand grenades, uniformed soldiers appearing out of nowhere, a short, violent struggle - and his days as a fugitive were over. A Shin Bet security service officer arrived at the scene, and he and Juma conducted the following exchange:
"See how smart we are."
"It's not that you're smart, it's me who's the ass."
"You were a centimeter away from being killed."
"No problem, finish the job now."
"Take a good look around - you won't be seeing this place for many years."
Dreaming or not, Juma was subjected to 90 straight days of interrogation, and then to another 70 days. One hundred and sixty days in the hands of the Shin Bet. What was the hardest part? "That's personal, private. I can't answer that." Two protest leaflets were found in his pockets. One supported the Madrid Conference, the other called for Molotov cocktails to be thrown at Israeli soldiers. "Which one of these are you?" his interrogators kept asking.
A day before the Oslo Accords became public knowledge, Juma was taken from the Hebron prison to the military court in Jenin. The prison car stopped in Nablus on the way. Through the bars, Juma could see a large parade of people carrying Palestinian flags and olive branches. The Israeli army stood by, doing nothing. "It was the first time I had ever seen demonstrators and soldiers in the same place, without clashing," he recalls. "That's something new, I said to myself. I really wanted to applaud, but my hands were tied."
Six months later, he emerged from prison into a new reality. Political activity was no longer forbidden, and Juma thought his troubles were all over. But a convoluted chain of events landed him back in the Jericho prison. This time, however, his captors were his own people.
What did you want to be before all this, when you were a child?
"They made me forget all that. I first went into prison at age 16. They turned off my thoughts, my dreams and ambitions. I think I wanted to be a pilot or a sailor."
What would your life have looked like without the occupation?
"I was born with the occupation, and I can't imagine my life any other way."
Do you trust Arafat at Camp David?
"The peace process is a battle between two adversaries. There's a winner and a loser. The battle is political, and the stronger side will win. We know the true extent of our power. All we want is to pass on to future generations a better reality than the one we had. We'll do what we can, and what we can't do - they'll carry on. Just so long as they get more than we got."
And if Arafat returns with an agreement you don't like?
"I have the right to object. As long as they don't close the door on him, there's no problem. But if the door closes and he brings back a bad agreement, we'll oppose it. We have agreed on positive forms of opposition, not destructive ones. That's the consensus here. If we stop believing the peace process can take us where we want to go, we'll have to choose another way. Even Clinton said that if there's no agreement, there'll be a confrontation. We've waited for a long time."
A new Intifada?
"The Intifada won't be repeated in the same format. The Palestinian people are now in a different place. Now there's Hamas, and the new Intifada will be done their way. No more rocks and leaflets, that's over. It'll be an Intifada of bombings and guns and helicopters. Hell. Lots of blood. Intifada led by the Fatah, but in the style of Hamas. Hamas is weak at politics, but strong at war. If the negotiations fail, the Palestinian Authority won't authorize Hamas to carry out attacks. The Authority will see to it itself."
Has it all been worth it?
"Up until now, it hasn't been. But we are just starting out. The Palestinian people have a lot of internal problems. There's no calm, no tranquillity. But I hope we can change that. True, we've grown tired and we've paid a heavy price, but in the end it will all pay off."
Are you scared?
"Sure I'm scared. It'll be terrible. Actually, I'm not scared, but very worried."
Will you join the fighting?
"That depends on the circumstances. During the Western Wall tunnel events, I wasn't sure that was the right thing to do, so I didn't participate. It all depends on internal conviction. The opening of the tunnel did not justify all that bloodshed. Now they're not talking about any tunnel. It's not a movie, it's reality, and it's final. A door to peace, or a door to war. If we have to, we'll say what Samson did: let it come down on our heads and on the rest of the world."
Are any preparations being made?
"There's no need. If there's failure, it will have an emotional impact, and that will provide the blast. It will happen by itself."
So coming here will be dangerous?
There are Oslo T-shirts in Sa'ad El-Harouf's store window in downtown Nablus. Harouf buys them in South Tel Aviv. He also carries Italian suits and Turkish jackets. Once every two months he goes on an importing trip. This morning brings little business to his successful store. Harouf says everyone is waiting for the results of the Camp David summit.
Osama Barham, only recently released after years of administrative detention by Israel, is now a real estate agent in casually elegant attire. He says that some people are stockpiling food, in case closure is imposed on the territories. People no longer fire off their weapons at weddings: ammunition has to be rationed.
Barham and Harouf met in the Israeli prison. They also were among the first to take part in the Intifada, and both agree that another Intifada will be nothing like the first.
"It will all be more organized," Harouf says. "There'll be more control over what happens in the streets. The streets are now more political and more heavily armed. They're also more united than they were before. Before the people were divided into those who supported peace and those who opposed it. Now everyone agrees there can be no arrangement without Jerusalem. There's a national consensus. We've reached a wall."
It is hard to see this rotund merchant, who studied auto mechanics for five years in Munich and speaks German, as an Intifada warrior. But the fact remains that he spent five years in an Israeli prison. He is convinced that otherwise he would have been killed in action, like his best friend, Ibrahim Mansour, Nablus's first casualty. Mansour's brother has been in prison in Israel for 20 years now.
Harouf's father came from Haifa, having been born to a well-known family in the city. The family had land and property on what is now Nazareth Street and on Neve Sha'anan Street, near the Nasser Cinema. He still has a certificate of ownership for the family's house and stores in Haifa, which he is willing to fax to anyone interested. His father obeyed the call of the Arab leaders and left the house for two weeks. Then he could not return.
"For 55 years, you've had the right to speak of what Hitler did to you," Harouf said to us this week. "I also have a right to speak of my tragedy. I have many Israeli friends; I know what you went through. Now it's time for you to acknowledge my suffering. Jews who lived in Germany get more rights than the Germans, not to mention reparations, all because of what they suffered. We had our own tragedy, we've seen life only under the occupation, and we hope our children won't grow up into this way of life."
Will you go back to fighting like before?
"Military action will be difficult now. I'll try to hang on. Hanging on, that's the struggle."
Would you return to the house in Haifa?
And what about the Jew that lives there?
"I didn't give him my house. That's his problem.