RESIDENTS of this battle-scarred city like to tell of the time their ancestors stood up to Napoleon. As French soldiers swept through Palestine toward Nablus in the early 19th century, local lore has it, the townspeople set the surrounding fields ablaze. Daunted by the ``mountain of fire,'' Napoleon changed course and the city was saved.
Whether real or apocryphal, the story reveals a good deal about a city that for centuries has been a thorn in the side of would-be invaders and distraught occupiers.
Now Nablus is at it again.
Almost 24 months after the start of the Palestinian uprising, known as the intifadah, this mountain-flanked city of 100,000 has become the virtual heartbeat of Palestinian resistance to Israel's 22-year rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is matched only by Gaza in the regularity and intensity of its violent confrontations with the Israeli authorities.
As violence winds down in some other parts of the West Bank, tightly organized bands of Nablus youths sustain the deadly game of cat and mouse with Israeli soldiers that has led the city to bear a disproportionate share of intifadah casualties.
More than a third of all Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers in September (nine of 23) were from Nablus, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
Meanwhile, in the dark, twisting alleyways of the city's casbah or old quarters - now reputed to be the most dangerous spot in the West Bank, masked gangs wielding knives and hatchets administer a brutal brand of ``popular justice'' to Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel.
Pressed by this challenge to Israeli authority, soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces have allegedly responded with abuses of their own, according to human rights groups. The allegations include beatings and in one highly publicized incident, denied by the Army, the fatal shooting at close range of a surrendering protester last month.
The Army has made breaking the resistance in Nablus the centerpiece of its strategy for quelling the intifadah.
``They have tried to break us because we try to follow our ancestors in resistance,'' says one Nablus resident, who asked not to be named. ``They know if they can crush the resistance here it means other towns can be subdued.''
Residents of Nablus say its leadership role in the intifadah derives from its history of opposition to outside authority. The city's unmanageable inhabitants have battled Turks, Jordanians, and Israelis. Fifty years ago the grandfathers of today's shebbab, or young demonstrators, were dropping stones of their own on the heads of the British soldiers who then occupied Palestine.
Economic factors have also endowed Nablus with a major role in the rebellion. As the West Bank's leading industrial and merchandising center, Nablus has produced a large, politically conscious middle class of businessmen, merchants, and professionals. As home to important Arab intellectuals, the city has also long been a seedbed of Arab nationalism.
``Nablus is, quite simply, the symbol of the Palestinian struggle,'' says Bassam Shakah, a former elected mayor of Nablus who was deposed by Israel in 1982.
Since the start of the intifadah, life in this largest city in the West Bank has been transformed. It has conformed itself to the austere regimen of all-out war against the Israeli occupation that its leaders have helped to fashion.
Hotels and restaurants that once awaited tourists at the end of the winding, historic trip through the Samarian highlands from Jerusalem are boarded up.
The town's 4,000-student university, An-Najah, is a closed military zone.
The long, eerily quiet afternoons that follow the start of daily commercial strikes now give way to a ghostlike silence after dark as intifadah leaders, warning that cars will be confiscated by Israeli soldiers, have ordered a halt to driving after sunset.
For nearly 150 days since the start of the rebellion, Israeli-imposed curfews have closed Nablus down altogether.
But beneath the superimposed calm is a city that, despite a few remaining outward appearances of normality, lives in fear of the unbridled violence now being perpetrated by both sides.
Human rights organizations have gathered chilling eyewitness accounts of Army brutality and efforts to humiliate Nablus residents.
In one case, an Israeli rights group is appealing to the Supreme Court to force the Army to court-martial a retired colonel, who allegedly ordered soldiers to take 12 residents of a village near Nablus into a field and break their arms and legs.
Other cases in which Palestinians are said to have been fired on at close range are attributed to a recent change in Army regulations under which any masked Palestinian is considered a suspect whether or not he is caught demonstrating or attacking soldiers.
Meanwhile, the city faces a new threat posed by the emergence of a roving gang of Palestinian teenagers which has taken matters into its own hands.
Known as the Black Panthers and originally aligned with the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the black-capped youths have imposed a reign of terror in the casbah, engaging soldiers and killing alleged collaborators in defiance of appeals from the PLO to stop the excessive violence.
The Panthers have acquired a mystique among some residents by stealing from merchants and, Robin Hood-style, transferring the proceeds to poor families living in the casbah.
(Earlier this month a second gang, known as the Red Eagles and affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was broken up after Israeli soldiers stormed a Nablus hideout, killing the alleged ringleader and arresting five others.)
``It's good to kill a collaborator, but we don't want to look like we're criminals before the world,'' says a Nablus resident who quarrels only with the methods employed by the Black Panthers.
Until now, Palestinian authority in Nablus, as in all West Bank and Gaza towns, has cascaded down from the Unified Command of the intifadah through dozens of banned but still functioning ``popular committees'' that have organized everything from food supplies to underground classrooms.
Below that, ``strike forces'' composed of hundreds of Palestinian youths enforce orders to shutter shops, observe strike days, or discontinue the sale of Israeli-made products in stores.
But the emergence in Nablus of a free-lance arm of the intifadah is taken as an ominous sign that the popular leadership may be losing control to more extremist elements as frustration with the meager fruits of the intifadah mounts.
``Until now the Unified Leadership has controlled the intifadah, but after a year or two it may not be able to,'' says a leading Palestinian figure in Nablus who also wished to remain unnamed. ``We already have groups that are out of control.''
``They do not have a political point; they just want to act with violence,'' adds the Nablus journalist.