After spending two hours with Mahdi Abu Ghazale, it is hard not to get the impression that he is a dead man walking. At 34 - relatively old for a wanted man - he is considered the commander of the "Night Horsemen." These armed men, from Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, operate in the Nablus casbah and have refused to give up their weapons to the Palestinian Authority.
Abu Ghazale did not seem outwardly nervous, but his short-barreled M-16 with its telescopic sight and two magazines were close by at all times, and his MIRS transmitted reports incessantly, along with a cell phone that did not stop ringing. A lookout stood at the window, and a Palestinian guard was at the door. Two armed men guarded both entrances to the street below. Their job was to warn of approaching Israeli troops.
Abu Ghazale earned the title of commander just recently. He received it two weeks ago after his predecessor, Bassam Abu Saraya, was killed, and one of his friends, Abd al-Rahman Shinawi, was seriously wounded in a clash with the Israel Defense Forces in the casbah. Since then, eight Night Horsemen have been killed by the IDF and the Shin Bet, which come in pursuit nearly every night.
Abu Ghazale knows very well he might be next. "When evening comes, I don't know if I'll see the next morning. But when one of our people is killed, it's an honor for us," he says.
Forget about slogans. Aren't you afraid?
"No one does not fear death. But understand, we see death every night. As a believing Muslim, I feel: We live, we live; we die, so we die. My story might end tonight, we'll see."
Next week, the PA is to deploy some 500 policemen throughout Nablus. On Tuesday, Palestinian Interior Minister Abed al-Razek al-Yihya came to the city with 23 foreign consuls to view preparations for the city's transfer to PA authority.
The city that was once synonymous with chaos and crime has become a model for other West Bank cities. The stolen cars have all but disappeared from the streets; PA policemen set up surprise road blocks to find suspected criminals; and the town center, Clock Square, looks entirely different: The dozens of stalls that used to clog traffic there have been removed by order of the PA, and things flow smoothly.
Most of the wanted men in Nablus have been pardoned by Israel, in agreement with the PA. But the Night Horsemen were not on the list.
"They told us that Israel wants us to be detained at PA headquarters and to give up our weapons," Abu Ghazale says. "But no one has promised that Israel won't try to hurt us while we are there."
Why weren't your people on the pardon list?
"The person in charge of wanted men in the PA [the interior minister - A.I.] didn't negotiate properly, and therefore the PA is responsible for our future. We don't attack civilian targets, we aren't dispatching suicide bombers. The army wants to get us mainly because of our actions against forces that enter the city. But it is our obligation and our right to hit soldiers who come to Nablus, and we will continue doing so."
More armed men enter the room. Ala Hamuda, 22, has been wanted for the past five years; Omar Aqub, for four. "Abu Wadia" is the nom de guerre of another wanted man from the Al-Ein refugee camp in Nablus, considered the commander of the Popular Front. Israel has accused him, along with Hamas, of trying to send a suicide bomber to Tel Aviv about a month ago. Down in the street, Mahdi Aqub waits his turn for guard duty. None are masked.
"There was a time when the Israeli army almost never operated in the city; we'd move around masked for fear they'd recognize us," Abu Ghazale explains. "Now it doesn't matter. Everybody knows what we look like, including the Shin Bet," he says.
In the afternoon, they start getting ready for night, when things get dangerous for them. "We get a report on any suspicious car that crosses one of the checkpoints into the city. We are very careful of the special [undercover] forces. If an unidentified car gets closer, we'll shoot anyone who gets out."
Abu Ghazale says that in one recent operation, the IDF played a tape on the local radio station calling on civilians to give up the Night Horsemen. He presses a button on his cell phone to play the recording: "Don't cooperate with them," the Arabic-speaking message says. "Save your city. If you have information about these people who are harming your security, call 052-327-1190: Amin Lubadi [who was killed - A.I.] Mahdi Abu Ghazale, Abd al-Rahman Shinawi [who was severely wounded] ... anonymity assured."
Omar Aqub says that for them, the hardest thing is being away from their families. They all live in the casbah, but do not go home because the IDF might be waiting for them. He has not seen his mother in four months.
Before night falls, they leave the meeting and stand under the poster of their dead former commander. Shortly after the meeting with Haaretz ended, they had to make another poster: The city's hospital reported that Shinawi had died. His photograph will join many others on Nablus' walls.