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Like the other large cities in the West Bank, Nablus is a regional administrative centre, a junction of commerce and industry, with educational and health facilities. The city caters for the 56 village communities in the eponymous province, as well as the three large refugee camps which arose in the city’s vicinity after 1948.
The origins of Nablus can be traced back to the Roman city of Flavia Neapolis (Flavius’ New City), which was founded by Emperor Titus in 72 CE, the name being an accolade to Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus by his successor and son. ‘Nablus’ is the Arabic translation of Neapolis. The prominent position which the city has occupied since antiquity is still discernable in, among other things, the Old City, which barely yields the palm to Jerusalem in size, beauty, and atmosphere.
In the course of the 19th century, Nablus developed into one of the most important commercial and industrial centres of Ottoman Syria. At that time, she was named the ‘city of hammams and soap’, because of the numerous public baths and soap factories. Afterward, Nablus became an important centre for Palestinian nationalism. This probably explains its strong local identity.
As a result, Nablus was a hard nut to crack for the Israeli occupying forces after 1967. Political and economic sanctions – and the occupation in general – have since severely disrupted the city’s economic and political position, especially after the outbreak of the Second Intifada (September 2000), when Israel imposed serious restrictions on the movement of persons and goods. These restrictions included the creation of a dozen checkpoints on the arterial roads, the imposition of sometimes extended curfews, and the introduction of compulsory travel permits. In February 2002, the city was temporarily ‘retaken’ by the Israeli army (and again, in 2007), which resulted in considerable material damage to the Old City.
Today, open spaces reveal where ancient buildings used to stand. Until now, reconstruction has been held back by a lack of sufficient financial means and expertise. The image is that of a set of teeth with a few molars missing. Elsewhere in the Old City, however, reconstruction has begun with the support of foreign funds.