The heart of occupied Nablus is one of the most ancient cities in the Middle East. With two churches, 12 mosques and a Samaritan synagogue around densely populated residential areas, the occupied West Bank city’s nickname is “Little Damascus” because of the way its architecture, arches and even the local accent and food are reminiscent of those of the Syrian capital.
On a normal day, the smell of spices and hand-made Nablus soap, the bright colors of cloth, and the welcoming faces of people fill the narrow alleys of the Ottoman-era Old City.
A massive Israeli military incursion on Wednesday targeting three suspected militants changed all that. A CNN team visited the city a day after that raid, to find residents looking into the eyes of every stranger, not welcoming, but concerned about the reason for their visit.
The market was on strike, mourning the 11 Palestinians killed the day before. Rather than selling their wares, business owners were collecting spent bullets from the alleys, with bullet holes and blood stains testifying to the violence the day before.
“We heard explosions and went to hide under the beds. We covered our ears with blankets,” said an old woman with trembling hands and a shaking voice, who was afraid to be identified. “I can’t even describe how shocking it was. We saw death with our own eyes. We didn’t expect to get out of this alive.”
Raid came in rush hour
Residents of the Old City have faced many night-time military invasions over the last year, especially since the new Lion’s Den militant group started operating there.
But this week’s invasion came at a very unexpected time of the day.
“They came around 10 a.m. We consider that rush hour in a densely populated area,” said Ahmad Jibril, head of the Emergency and Ambulance Department of the Palestinian Red Crescent in Nablus. The dead included a 72-year-old market trader who, Jibril alleged, “was shot with 10 live bullets all over his body although he wasn’t causing any threat.”
Paramedic Amid Ahmad, who was working to rescue the injured, said this is the first time since the height of the last intifada in 2000 that he has seen the Israeli army using weapons the way they did this week.
“They were shooting randomly everywhere,” he said. “There was an extremely huge number of injuries. Everything was so difficult – reaching the injured, evacuating the injured, everything was difficult because the area is very narrow and was all blocked by the army that prevented us from working.”
Israel Defense Forces international spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht denied that Israeli troops were firing “randomly,” saying: “The IDF only shoots at threats.”
Another IDF spokesman, Maj. Nir Dinar, told CNN he hoped it was not true that IDF forces had blocked medics from reaching the wounded, and said he was “not familiar with such behavior.”
Nablus residents say undercover Israeli military operatives were involved in the raid, one reason they were so distrustful of strangers the following day.
‘Snipers were on all of the rooftops’
Sahar Zalloum was coming home from bringing her husband’s breakfast to his shop in the market, she said, when she was shocked to see a man she believes was an undercover operative at the door of her house: “I heard some noises in the yard. I saw a man wearing a sheikh’s clothes sitting with a gun. He asked me to get into the house. I ran home – it was terrifying, we didn’t dare to look out from any window, snipers were on all of the rooftops.”
Zalloum and her husband survived uninjured. But many were not so lucky.
Social media video appears to show at least two Israeli army vehicles near the entrance of a mosque, amid gunfire as a group of Palestinians come out of the mosque.
CNN asked the IDF about the video, but received only a generic statement in response, saying in part: “The circumstances of the event in the video are under examination.”
The wounded were transferred to Al Najah Hospital in the city, where Elias Al-Ashqar is a nurse. A video captured him in the emergency room, screaming “My father, my father” the moment he realized one of the dead was his father Abdul-Hadi Al-Ashqar, 61.
“I didn’t believe it, then I came closer,” he told CNN the next day. “I had one of my colleagues with me. I asked him if he sees this dead man as my father. I looked around, waiting for anyone to say that I was mistaken. But it was my father.”
Since the beginning of the year, 62 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health – the highest number at this point in a year since the year 2000. Israel argues that many of the dead are militants, or people attacking Israeli civilians or clashing with Israeli military forces.
But some of them – like Elias Al-Ashqar’s father Abdul-Hadi – appear simply to have been innocent bystanders.