There’s no theft in Nablus. Maybe here and there, but it’s not a phenomenon. About half the residents of the town have been impoverished by the tough closure, and the classic tension between the refugee camps has intensified. Anyone coming to the city through the IDF blockade arrives with baggage full of nerves: for the lost time, the rifles aimed at them by the soldiers, and the soldiers’ insulting language.
One Fatah group starts a quarrel with another Fatah group. Someone from a third Fatah group shoots at someone from the first Fatah group. Armed men are walking around in the open with their weapons, even though the army comes into the city every day and is constantly watching, and even though the army has made it clear that any armed person will be shot. For that precise reason, the Palestinian police do not carry weapons, and know that neither their titles as employees of the Palestinian Authority nor their uniforms give them any authority. And the courts are not working. In many other places in the world, all it would take is just a drop of this to yield to vandalism, economic vengeance, and empty streets as people stay home in fear. But not in Nablus.
Quite a few surprises await someone looking in Nablus for the fawda, the anarchy. The doors to homes are not locked, the city has functioned without a mayor and with a truncated budget, the streets are clean, roads that were chewed up for two years by tanks are repaired and upgraded, and the university insists on students not missing any school days, despite pressure from the political organizations to observe days of mourning when their leaders or others are killed.
When the results of the matriculation exam came in, it seemed that everyone in Nablus was only interested in the scores, not the latest internal Fatah dispute. The local radio station broadcast the results for hours, and mothers brought candies to work to celebrate the success of a son or daughter, including a mother who lost her son in some lost battle with the army. She explained that her mourning should not hurt the chances of the living. And not everyone passed: to those who didn’t, there were condolence calls by friends and relatives.
The expression of anarchy on the Palestinian side and the loss of control is grabbing the headlines, and rightfully so. But two basic facts have not made headlines. One, it’s an anarchy typical of Fatah – an anarchy that matches the traditional methods of control used by Yasser Arafat for decades – and hundreds of its senior members and thousands of its junior members, whether knowingly or without a choice or for personal reasons, have submitted to it. An internal competition over resources and power, the exploitation of young people by a few mysterious power players in Fatah, the changing of loyalties every few weeks: it’s anarchy, and people guess that it also involves some collaborators with the Shin Bet, but that suspicion only intensifies the certain sense of a lack of control.
But this anarchy only skims the surface of the natural social fabric, and that leads to the second fact: the Palestinian social structure preserves a surprising stability, an internal solidity, a mutual trust at levels that are not usually found in societies which have been through disasters, daily fear, insecurity about the future, suspicion of collaborators, and the economic crises that have shocked the Palestinians for so many years.
The clan structure proves itself over and over as an anchor and spine, in an era of shocks.
The social solidarity goes beyond the boundaries of the clan. Along with veteran mukhtars – family elders who mediate conflicts and disputes – there are modern arbitrators who are trusted for their political experience and years in jail. There’s the usual aid, the Islam-based charities or the charities from the town’s wealthy, or the cooperatives set up by the refugees of 1948. And there’s the non-profit groups founded by leftists.
Aside from the clan structure, there is one other unifying factor: the Israeli occupation. Like every occupation regime, it tries to divide and crumble and seduce. The internal political debates are deep, but the vast majority of the public is unified by its hatred of the occupation and its representatives. That does not mean there is no mutual recrimination, mean gossip, jealousies and rivalries, but where do such things not exist?
That internal contradiction is quite characteristic of every Palestinian community in the West Bank and in Gaza. Even in Ramallah, the capital of the humiliated Palestinian Authority, which has the highest rate of “immigrants” who do not belong to the old families of the town, where the economic gaps are particularly glaring, and the residents do report break-ins and assaults, there is a sense of basic domestic security. And opposite the irresponsibility embedded in Fatah, which the Israeli occupation strengthened so well, there is also the deep solidarity and sense of mutual responsibility that derived from it. Don’t let the headlines and the Fatah thugs make you forget it.