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    Sunday, November 9, 2008

    The prisoners of Nablus

    Nablus, West Bank - Thursday, Nov. 6

    When I first met Adly Yaish nearly three years ago, he was full of excitement. Just elected the mayor of the West Bank city of Nablus with a whopping 74 per cent of the vote (besting four other candidates), the businessman-turned-politician was a believer in the future, in democracy, even in Israeli-Palestinian co-existence.

    Today, he slumps at his desk as he describes the 15 months he spent in Israeli prison without ever being charged with anything (though Yaish says he is not a member of Hamas, he ran for election on their list during 2005 municipal elections) since his election. His release was ordered nine separate times during that span by Israeli judges. Nine times, the prosecutors found ways to keep him in prison (the tactic is known as "administrative detention") while they futilely tried to build a case. Nearly half his term in office was wasted behind bars

    But Yaish gets truly depressed when he describes what has happened to his beloved Nablus, a 2,000-year-old city set deep in a valley in the northern West Bank. Rather than restoring a sense of normalcy to the city through planned upgrades to its sewage system and electricity grid, the 56-year-old Liverpool University mechanical engineering graduate has seen the city's cultural and economic life crumble during his time in office.

    “Nablus used to be the commercial capital of the Palestinians, now it's the capital of poverty. It used to be the biggest city in the West Bank, now it's the biggest village,” he told me as we drank zaatar-infused tea at his office this evening. “The situation has gotten so much worse in the past three years. The really bad news is that people are starting to lose hope.”

    Nablus's ailment is easy to identify. The city and its 180,000 residents are surrounded by six Israeli checkpoints, 14 Jewish settlements and 26 settlement outposts, the latter of which are illegal even under Israeli law. Getting in and out of the city is a chore for anyone and impossible for many. Commercial interaction with the rest of the West Bank – never mind the rest of the world – has been almost completely choked off.

    Some residents haven't left the city since the last intifada began in the fall of 2000. Thousands of children have never seen the world beyond the checkpoints.

    Once a hotbed of militant activity, Nablus and the nearby Balata refugee camp are largely quiet these days. Large numbers of gunmen who once fought Israel have handed in their weapons to the Palestinian Authority, and PA policemen now control the streets. The Israeli army, however, still enters at will and makes arrests, as it did today when a group of undercover officers apprehended Hamas member Mohammed Kharraz from the convenience store his family owns in the city.

    Yaish says that Israel's refusal to lift the checkpoints or stop the military incursions into his city means that the current calm cannot last.

    “When I was in prison, I told the man interrogating me: ‘Look, I'm the mayor of Nablus. Seventy-four per cent of the people voted for me. I never did anything wrong, I never harmed anybody. When you put me in prison, what do you think will happen? Do you think the people of Nablus will become more peaceful?' I told him, ‘You are hurting the Israeli cause. You are not hurting mine.'”

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