On April 14, 2005, Ibrahim Isneiri, a member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, was shot dead by Israeli forces in the Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus, a town located between two mountains in the northern West Bank. Palestinian eyewitnesses said Israeli forces opened fire first, while the Israeli military claimed that they were returning the Palestinian’s fire. Israeli soldiers had entered the camp looking for Isneiri because, Israeli security sources alleged, he was planning an armed operation to be carried out inside Israel.

Two months earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had pledged to “cease all…military activity against all Palestinians everywhere” at the close of a summit meeting with newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Sinai resort of Sharm al-Sheikh. The Western press reported Isneiri’s killing as an initial “test” for the truce concluded at Sharm al-Sheikh, while noting that Sharon had reserved the “right to pursue extremists” suspected by Israel of plotting attacks.

But only a week after the summit, on the evening of February 15, Israeli forces killed two other Brigade members in Kafr Qalil, a village outside of Nablus. The mainstream Western press did not report the deaths of Isam Hamza Mansour and Mahjoub Halkini at all. Israeli security sources said the two men were “approaching the Israeli community [settlement] of Bracha,” but reporting by al-Jazeera indicated that the two were ambushed as they were hiding in an empty house. After a short exchange of fire, Israeli troops killed Mansour and Halkini with bullets shot at close range into their heads and chests. Israeli authorities then imposed a curfew on the area and prohibited ambulances from reaching the bodies.

These three deaths hardly registered on the political stage, though Abbas stated that the killing of Isneiri violated the truce. But the killings arguably fall into the category of extrajudicial Executions — and thus may constitute a continuation of Israel’s stated assassination policy that presumably has been suspended since the summit. The Nablus area has witnessed a high number of assassinations during the second intifada, many of them airborne missile strikes on cars carrying militants through city streets. As elsewhere in Palestine, assassinations in Nablus have killed many Palestinians uninvolved in armed resistance to Israeli occupation, damaged a great deal of property and terrified the population. Even after the intifada has largely ended, and the danger of the deadly airstrikes has waned dramatically, they continue to damage Palestinian society.

Sons of the Camp

Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, is a tightly bunched cityscape peppered with demolished homes and haunted by the memory of lost sons — several of them lost to assassination. Many of the rank and file of Nablus branches of militant organizations hail from the camp. While the term “assassination” usually connotes the killing of a leader, Israel’s extrajudicial killings have targeted a surprising number of middle-ranking activists, cutting out what otherwise might be a lengthy arrest, trial and sentencing process with the speed of a missile.

For two years, 24-year old taxi driver Ismail Marshoud lived a life approximating that of a wanted man. Israeli soldiers stopped and detained him countless times. They searched his family home repeatedly. His family lived for months without furniture or personal effects, in case the army destroyed their house in Balata on short notice. Whenever Ismail heard that the army was in town, he would hurry home. The army impounded his car so often that many people refused to travel in it because they feared it could be rigged.

Then, on June 14, 2004, these troubles were eclipsed by catastrophe. The Israeli army had assassinated his identical twin brother Khalil, a leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Ismail ran to the sound of an explosion, and saw the results of the missile strike on the car in which his brother had been riding. “He’s my twin,” recalls Ismail, “and I couldn’t recognize him.” The attack also killed the driver and badly injured a third person in the back seat.

Khalil had worried about his brother, fearing that one of the thin, dark-complexioned twins would die in place of the other. Ismail worried too. He used to walk home from his taxi jangling his keys so that potential informers would know he was not his wanted brother braving the streets. Despite these precautions, Ismail would return home late at night to find the army at his door an hour later. Ismail remembers his brother as a beloved son of the camp, a man who would buy medicine for people who could not afford it and a benevolent protector who still appears in the dreams of neighbor children. It is clear that Khalil Marshoud was not among the highest-ranking leaders of his militia — at least not originally. Just weeks before his own death, he gave a rousing speech after the killing of a group of high-level militants in Nablus’ old city. An Israeli press release claimed that Khalil had taken the place of the previous leaders of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Balata, who themselves had been assassinated just two months before Khalil’s assassination. The press release alleged that Khalil was involved in the planning of a number of thwarted bombings.

Defining Assassination

While missile strikes such as the one that killed Khalil Marshoud are sometimes called “pinpoint” or “surgical,” they are anything but. In Nablus alone, 19 bystanders were killed in assassination strikes from 2000–2004, along with the 55 targeted persons, according to the Palestine Monitor, a Ramallah-based human rights group. In Gaza assassination strikes killed 118 bystanders and 72 targeted persons over the same period. Assassinations have also destroyed homes and even entire apartment buildings, as in Nablus on September 5, 2003, when the seven-story building in which Hamas leader Mohammad al-Hanbali was hiding was demolished after his body was removed from the building, apparently, as locals said, as punishment for the residents who hid al-Hanbali in their apartment.

In all the West Bank and Gaza, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) has identified 239 targeted persons and 125 bystanders who were killed by Israeli assassinations from the fall of 2000, the start of the current uprising, through May 2004. These numbers roughly accord with those of the Palestine Monitor. Among these are the high-profile assassinations of Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, killed in a missile strike as he was leaving a mosque in his wheelchair at dawn on March 22, 2004, and ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Rantisi, also of Hamas, who was killed less than a month later. In those two operations, five bystanders also died. The most deadly assassination —  described by Sharon at the time as “one of the most successful operations” — also took place in Gaza, when Israeli forces dropped a one-ton bomb intended to kill Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh. That bomb also killed 13 other people, including nine children.

PCATI has filed petitions in Israeli courts to halt the assassination policy. Their lawyers argue that assassinations of militants are violations of international humanitarian law because militants must be regarded as civilians except when they are actually in the act of performing a military attack. This stipulation is necessary because preserving the distinction between civilians and combatants helps avoid mistaken attacks on civilians. Instead, militants not in the act of a military attack can be arrested and prosecuted. [1] PCATI’s legal briefs also assert that, according to international humanitarian law, use of force must be proportional to the importance of the operation. Given that Israel is the occupier and thus is responsible for the wellbeing of those under its occupation, the principle of proportionality must be taken even more seriously. Moreover, if Israeli authorities claim that occupiers are permitted to balance international humanitarian law with the need for self-defense and security, this claim is greatly weakened by the fundamental illegality of the occupation itself, which has lasted far too long to be legitimate, and has systematically violated the best interests of the occupied people.

The Israeli human rights group B’tselem, which defines assassinations more conservatively, still counts 175 assassinations in the first four years of the intifada. B’tselem does not consider an ambush an assassination if there was crossfire between Israeli forces and Palestinians, unless Israeli officials announce such an operation to be an assassination. However, such killings of militants have all occurred in Palestinian areas, meaning that no matter who happens to fire first, Israeli forces are the ones responsible for initiating an operation, because they entered Palestinian areas in search of militants. It is not surprising that militants will try to defend themselves if ambushed, if nothing else to go out fighting. Nor is it surprising that Israeli acknowledgement of assassinations is not always forthcoming, and that there are often discrepancies between Israeli official accounts and those of Palestinian eyewitnesses. As Sharon commented in 2001: “Sometimes we will announce what we did, sometimes we will not announce what we did. We don’t always have to announce it.”

A City with Views

On many nights, the theater of occupation is performed for Nablus residents watching from the same porches from which, at other times, they might comment on the bustle of a wedding procession or the lights of Israeli factories to the west, or even the distant shimmer of sunset on the Mediterranean Sea, whose gentle waves Nablus residents have been forbidden to enjoy for the last four years.

On July 6, 2004, two militants belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), two civilians and an Israeli officer were killed during an intense assault upon a building on Nablus’ northern mountain. Al-Najah University professor Saed Abu Hijleh, who lives on the southern mountain, remembers an explosion and gunfire coming from somewhere near al-‘Ayn refugee camp after midnight. The city was silent for a few minutes and then the valley filled with the sound of gunfire. The professor said he knew then that Palestinian fighters had attacked an army position. Over the next few hours, he and his family watched as Israeli tanks, snipers and helicopters directed their fire at a single building. They could see the missiles gliding above them from the faroff helicopters.

Mahdi Fadda, an emergency room physician at Rafidiyya Hospital, was in his apartment on the top floor of the building. He huddled under a table, listening to the water dripping from the bullet-pierced water tanks above him. During one of the lulls in the gunfire, he checked his door, anticipating that the army would evacuate the building. The lock was jammed. A few floors down, Khalid Salah, another professor at al-Najah University, crowded together with his wife, their daughter and two of their sons reading the Qur’an and watching the red glow of the bullets that stuck in their walls slowly fade. The air bore the scent of broken perfume bottles.

After hours of gunfire, the city fell quiet, and people on both sides of the mountain heard the soldiers call out over loudspeakers in Arabic for the residents of the house to come downstairs. The doctor on the top floor tried his door again, and found that this time it opened. He stepped outside and he saw a red beam playing on his white shirt. He ducked back inside as gunfire blasted outside. Two floors down, Khalid Salah tried to open the door after the shooting ended. When he found it jammed, he went to the window to shout down to the soldiers in English, as his daughter later recalled, “I am a peaceful man. My daughter has American citizenship. I have an American green card; I have no weapons. Come and open the door. I can’t open it.” Instead, the soldiers fired up at him, and moments later he was dead, and his son was badly injured. When the family finally made it downstairs, they pleaded in vain with the soldiers to give medical attention to their injured son.

Though the army threatened to blow up the house, in the end they simply searched it, riddling appliances and furniture with bullets. Both Fadda and Salam Salah, Khalid’s widow, described how every piece of linen and clothing they owned had bullet holes in it. By the end of the night, the university professor and his 16-year old son were dead, as well as the two militants and the Israeli officer.

One of the two PFLP militants, Amjad Hanani, had already been killed during the ambush, while a second, Yamin Faraj, had survived injured. Fadda, who had exited with other residents of the building, recalled that the soldiers searched and bound all of the men of the building, but that one was later unbound and forced to drag Faraj from his hiding place. Then Israeli soldiers shot Faraj in the head. Thus while the opening fire of the Palestinians renders the killing of Faraj not an assassination in the eyes of B’tselem, it was at least an execution. As in many other cases, like those of Mansour and Halkini above, it is impossible to know for sure what Israeli intentions were before the raid. However, the execution of Yamin Faraj, as reported by Agence France Presse and supported by subsequent analysis by Nablus’ forensic doctor, Samir Abu Za‘rur, clearly violated international law. [2] Israeli sources said that they killed the militant after he was injured because he still posed a threat to the soldiers.

Different Kinds of Deaths

A September 2004 poll conducted by al-Najah University reported that 67 percent of Palestinians supported a ceasefire, but it also showed that 92.7 percent of Palestinians see Palestinian military operations as “a natural reaction to Israeli military operations.” This disparity captures the complicated attitudes among Palestinian civilians toward the actions of those like the PFLP militants. One hears Palestinians express particular frustration with attacks inside Israel, especially when they believe these attacks are badly timed, such as the bombing that distracted local and international attention from a 16-day prisoners’ hunger strike, or the one that came the day before the International Court of Justice hearings about the separation wall.

However, from others, one hears a critique of those uninvolved with the intifada. For decades, militants and others involved in resistance have played a complex role in making the question of Palestine a pressing global issue and constraining leaders who might settle for less than what many Palestinians believe they deserve. During the second intifada, those involved in resistance and their communities — places like Nablus and especially the old city and the refugee camps — have paid high prices or their dedication. A long-time political activist from Bethlehem, Ghassan Andoni, criticized the “educated middle classes” for their lack of participation in the various kinds of resistance present on the ground in the Occupied Territories, and suggested that those who cannot find a way to contribute in some way to resistance of Israeli occupation should not criticize those who have.

As the Palestinian Authority itself has been gravely weakened by Israeli attacks, law and order has deteriorated in some places, including Nablus and Gaza. The shabab — literally, the young men, but often referring to those in the armed resistance — have contributed to lawlessness. This has been especially true in Nablus, where the long-serving mayor, Ghassan Shaka‘a, resigned in February 2004 in protest of the Palestinian Authority’s inability to provide order in the city. People armed by the political factions have used force to settle personal disputes. During general strikes, some of the shabab also have enforced the closure of stores by force. Still, residents of Nablus know of the militants’ feats in trying to evade Israeli arrest or assassination, and when they are killed, their pictures are faithfully hung in the streets.

Abu Hijleh, the professor, is the son of Shaden Abu Hijleh, who was killed in October 2002 while doing embroidery on her porch when an Israeli bullet whined into an otherwise completely calm street. The professor characterized his mother’s killing as an assassination, aimed at ending her prodigious efforts to improve Palestinian civil society and non-violently oppose the occupation through a local women’s organization.

However, not everyone makes this link between different kinds of resistance and different kinds of deaths. The economically privileged wife and mother of two bystanders killed in Nablus told Israeli television that she thought that militants should avoid civilian areas, a difficult demand given that Palestinians have limited control outside heavily inhabited civilian areas — not, for example, over open space between cities. She emphasized that neither her husband nor son were involved in politics. Andoni sees such reasoning as misplaced: “The risks of this intifada have been scary, but I think you’re no safer staying in your home. So many people have been killed in their homes during this intifada.”



[1] Antonio Cassese, “Expert Opinion on Whether Israel’s Targeted Killing of Palestinian Terrorists Is Consonant with International Humanitarian Law,” Public Committee Against Torture et al v. Government of Israel et al. Israeli High Court of Justice.

[2] Agence France Presse, July 6, 2004.

How to cite this article:

Amahl Bishara "The Targeted and the Untargeted of Nablus," Middle East Report 235 (Summer 2005).

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