On the edge of this desperate city, a gang of young Palestinian men, two in black ski masks, surrounded a passing car on Thursday afternoon and demanded that its passengers get out.
The armed thugs seemed to be searching for a rival who had killed one of their friends, although they did not bother to explain themselves before letting the passengers and the car go.
A few blocks away and minutes earlier, a group of older Palestinian men bemoaned what they said was rampant crime between Palestinians here and asked a pointed question with implications for the crippled peace effort known as the road map:
How can the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas be expected to safeguard Israelis when he cannot safeguard his own people?
"He should get rid of the gangs here before he even thinks of any measures against the Palestinian resistance," said one of the men, referring to the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The Israeli government, along with leaders from the US and other countries, has ratcheted up demands that Abbas crack down on the militant groups as a precursor to any peace.
But several hours in this lawless city and a series of conversations with its embittered residents suggested severe limits to Abbas' abilities to do that.
Those limits are political as well as practical: Abbas is a man in a tight bind.
Residents of Nablus, which Israel considers a center of Palestinian militancy, confirmed the widespread belief that if Abbas tried to shore up his international legitimacy by taking aim at militant groups, he would destroy what legitimacy he still had with Palestinians.
Questions about the extent of his sway were inherent on Thursday in the fact that US Secretary of State Colin Powell beseeched Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to help him.
Many Palestinians said on Thursday that they were already close to giving up on Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, because nothing he had done, including his endorsement of the peace plan known as the road map, had made their lives any better.
"Where is this road map?" asked Ana Qadri, a 42-year-old medical worker. "Show me one sign. I just want to see one sign."
As Qadri spoke, a dozen teenagers nearby hurled chunks of concrete at one of many Israeli tanks in Nablus, which Israeli armed forces entered in response to a suicide bombing that killed 20 people on a bus in Jerusalem on Tuesday night.
She said that the peace plan had not yet stopped such raids or eliminated Israeli military checkpoints that prevented Palestinians from moving through the West Bank. As a result, she said, any crackdown on militant groups by Abbas would be seen as an unwarranted surrender.
"The first action has to come from the Israeli side," Qadri said. "Abu Mazen cannot do anything without that."
Several people here said that Abbas would be wiser to resign, a word they frequently used, than to strike against militant groups.