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Last Updated: Friday, 7 March, 2003, 14:41 GMT
When Israeli army comes calling
The BBC's Alan Johnston
By the BBC's Alan Johnston
In Nablus

Alan Johnston has just spent nearly two weeks living with a Palestinian family in the West Bank city of Nablus looking at how the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people are being re-shaped by the seemingly endless confrontation:

The beam from the searchlight caught the house, and the living room around us was suddenly awash with light.

Israeli soldiers conduct house-to-house searches
Israelis argue they are searching for militants to prevent suicide bombings
We stood motionless, listening to the Israeli armour grind slowly up the street. Would the soldiers pass by - or were they coming for us?

They stopped at our gate.

It was two in the morning, and it seemed that in a moment, the troops would be pounding on our door.

We had heard their loudspeaker earlier, ordering people to come out of their homes with their hands on their heads. But then the patrol gunned its engines. It was turning and moving on.

Leila began to laugh softly. "Now you know why we smoke so much," she said.

I knew all along that even if we were ordered out, my identity card would show that I was a foreign journalist, and I'd be left alone.

But for a moment, standing in the beam of the searchlight, you did get a little of the sense of what it is to be a Palestinian when the Israeli army comes calling in the night.

Suicide bombers

The family that I was staying with are not in any way militant, or even political. But, like all Palestinians, they dread any encounter with the army.

A degree of humiliation is always possible. Perhaps just some abuse - an insult, perhaps a slapping for a man who steps out of line.

A young Palestinian boy surveys the remains of a building in Nablus
Many buildings have been destroyed by military operations in Nablus
And then there is even the chance of some terrible misunderstanding in the darkness - a nervous young soldier, and a burst of fire.

Back in Jerusalem last summer I remember going through the wreckage of a cafe where a suicide bomber had struck. A survivor called Nouri Isaacs told me how a chance decision to sit on one side of the cafe rather than the other had probably saved his life.

Nouri went into grotesque detail, telling me how the person he was chatting to had had his ribcage broken by the bomber's head, which had shot across the cafe like a cannonball.

The Israeli soldiers out in the night, pounding on the doors of Nablus, would tell you that they were on a mission to end those kinds of Palestinian attacks.

The army searches for militants from organisations like the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, which was formed in Nablus. The soldiers would say that if a potential bomber was hiding somewhere in our area, then catching him might save a dozen Israeli lives - and in that case some broken sleep for my friend Khaled and his neighbours would be a small price to pay.

But a Palestinian might argue that if Israel was not occupying and expanding its presence on the West Bank then there might not be any suicide bombers.

And so the argument goes on, and so the occupation continues, and close-up, its violence is particularly shocking. During my 12 days in Nablus, the Israelis shot seven people dead - including two ambulance men and a retarded boy.

Nablus is a city where anyone so much as disobeying an order to halt during the curfew knows that he is risking the army's deadly fire.

Ordinary lives

The occupation in its current, especially intense form seems to crowd into all the corners of the lives of ordinary Palestinians - surfacing in almost every conversation in one way or another.

A Palestinian throws stones at a tank in Nablus
Many residents have taken to throwing stones at the troops
It has smashed the economy and crippled the education system. But in the chaos of what feels like a collapsing society, there is at times a strange degree of normality.

As the Israelis exchanged fire one afternoon with militants in the city centre, just a few streets away people carried on doing business.

I watched a young mum glance around the corner of an alleyway to check that it was safe for her kids to cross and perhaps carry on with the shopping.

And, despite everything, people in Nablus seemed surprisingly ready to laugh at their strange and violent predicament.

You kept coming across a seam of dark humour.

My friend Khaled says that when he was a kid he spent a whole intifada throwing stones at Israeli soldiers - but he never managed to actually hit one. He says it used to make him wonder if the Israelis really were the chosen people.

His stone-throwing wasn't entirely without impact, though. He once hit his brother by mistake. Even the intifada has its friendly fire.

But the moment I'll probably remember longest came after the Israelis had been ransacking Nablus's old quarter, the Casbah, for four days.

The city's mayor called for a peaceful protest. At 2030 exactly that evening people began, en masse, to let out Islam's famous cry - Allahu Akbar, God is Great.

Men and women, the young and the old came out onto thousands of balconies and rooftops in driving rain to shout at the top of their voices - over and over again.

Their cries and whistles began to merge and swell.

In the end, it seemed that the whole city was roaring into the night - demanding that God and the world hear its rage and defiance.

In the morning the Israeli army pulled out of the Casbah.

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