For days, whenever they spotted a rare visitor in the narrow street below, people would lean from high balconies or press their faces against iron window bars to chant a litany of deprivation and need.
“I don’t have any diapers for the baby,” a young Palestinian mother called out. “My tooth is killing me, and I don’t have any painkillers,” said a rumpled man with one hand clamped tight against his jaw. “We’ve run out of bread,” a solemn-looking 10-year-old boy murmured from a dark doorway.
For three days last week, the casbah of Nablus -- a warren of twisting alleyways, crumbling stone arches and dank passages at the ancient heart of the West Bank’s largest city -- was besieged by Israeli troops, with its 20,000 people trapped in their homes by curfews and clashes. Israeli forces seized the quarter, a stronghold of Palestinian militant groups, to conduct house-to-house searches for armed fugitives.
For the Israeli military, the operation was an unqualified success, with more than two dozen militants captured or killed. They included the West Bank’s most wanted man, the alleged mastermind of several suicide bombings, who was slain with six comrades in a hideaway carved into one of the casbah’s innumerable secret tunnels.
But Palestinian civilians say they pay too high a price when intensive manhunts such as this are carried out in such a densely populated urban area. Bystanders to the cat-and-mouse duel of Israeli soldiers and fugitive militants, the casbah’s residents experienced a familiar mixture of tedium and terror, with long hours of boredom punctuated by the staccato crack of gunfire or the muffled crash of a neighbor’s door being broken down by troops.
The Israeli incursion into the casbah was longer and larger than most, but it otherwise mirrored similar operations that take place almost daily in some corner of the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Some last only an hour or two and are confined to a relatively small area; others extend for days and affect the lives of thousands of Palestinians.
“It’s so miserable for the people, being under siege,” said the governor of Nablus, Mahmoud Aloul. “But it’s just the routine -- it’s become a way of life. It’s happening somewhere almost all the time.”
For Israeli troops, a place like the Nablus casbah is considered as dangerous as any battlefield, its streets too narrow for armored vehicles. Forced to fan out on foot, the soldiers know they face gunmen who can fire on them and then slip away into a maze of passageways.
So when the army rolls into a Palestinian neighborhood where the militants are known to hold sway, it does so with a decisive show of force. Arriving last Wednesday night at the casbah, hundreds of soldiers sealed off the quarter’s entrances and exits with concrete barriers and barbed wire. Troops seized civilian homes as lookout posts, sometimes herding family members into a single room for the remainder of their stay, sometimes brusquely evicting them.
As the Israeli forces consolidated their grip on the casbah, 45-year-old Amira Abdo answered a knock at her door. There stood her next-door neighbors, an extended family of 12 who had just been ordered out of their house by soldiers.
“We took them in, of course,” Abdo said as her guests gathered around the kitchen table for a simple meal, eaten in shifts because of their numbers. “They would do the same for us.” With army loudspeakers blaring warnings to stay indoors, the streets swiftly emptied.
The casbah is a poor neighborhood, and not all homes have refrigerators. Because people are accustomed to shopping daily for provisions, they swiftly ran short of essentials -- bread, milk, cooking oil. The curfew was briefly lifted a few times, but some were unable to make their way to shops in time, hence the entreaties to any passerby for help.
As the military operation continued, the army allowed volunteer Palestinian medics to enter the casbah to bring sick people to the doctor. On the second day of the siege, two journalists accompanied medical workers on their escort mission. Clad in bright-orange vests, the medics cautiously picked their way through winding streets littered with reeking garbage and spent cartridges.
“Don’t come up too fast on an alleyway,” one of them warned. “You don’t ever want to take the soldiers by surprise.” At a crowded makeshift clinic in the casbah’s center, it was plain that the confinement fell hardest on the very old and the very young. Five-year-old Jumeina Shreim, in a pink playsuit and sandals, wheezed faintly as her grandmother watched anxiously over her.
“She’s been vomiting all night,” said the grandmother, Umm Hassan. “At first I thought it was because of all the shooting -- children often throw up from fear when that happens. But then we realized she had a fever, and something was the matter with the way she was breathing.”
The lockdown in Nablus coincided with what were to have been school examinations, and 15-year-old Alaa Shaheen was distraught about missing them, even after school administrators went on the radio to promise a makeup test.
“She’s a really bright student,” her father, Mohammed Mounif, said with pride, while Alaa ducked her head to hide a smile at the praise.
“School is very important to me,” she said shyly.
Even after Israeli troops left the casbah Sunday, they remained a presence in and around Nablus. And they might be back any time, the military warned.
“The terror organizations, judging by past experience, will find replacements for those we caught and killed, and they will go on with attacks,” the deputy commander of a paratrooper brigade that took part in the casbah siege, identified under military rules only as Lt. Gen. Danny, told Israel Radio.
“So it’s not over. All this will have to go on as well.”