Bakers prepare a giant kunafa in Nablus. The local.
(photo credit: AP)
Middle-class matrons shop for imported furniture in
a marble-and-glass emporium. A new movie house is screening the
Hollywood blockbuster Transformers. Teens bop to a Danish hip-hop band performing on their high school basketball court.
Life in the West Bank - in sharp contrast to beaten down, Hamas-ruled Gaza - has taken on a semblance of normalcy.
Exhausted after more than two decades of on-and-off conflict
and deeply skeptical about prospects of statehood,
Palestinians here are increasingly trying to carve out their own little
niches of happiness.
"We need to enjoy our life despite all the difficulties," said
housewife Nadia Aweida, in her 50s, after taking in a dance show in
It would appear that the West Bank, under US-backed
President Mahmoud Abbas
, has finally made first
steps toward the stability that the international community has tried
to foster with massive foreign aid and training for PA security forces.
But the hopeful signs come with many qualifiers.
While Israel has removed several West Bank
checkpoints, other obstacles still limit Palestinian mobility to half
the territory. The economy is no longer in free fall, but is still
shrinking, according to the World Bank. Whatever prosperity there is
depends mainly on foreign aid.
Meanwhile, Abbas remains locked in a power struggle with Hamas;
the Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed
blockade for two years, is growing steadily poorer.
With unemployment widespread, many Palestinians still struggle
just to get by. But those with a little cash in their pockets,
including people with steady government jobs, say they're tired of
waiting for the comforts of a world they can only see on the Internet
Palestinian companies in Ramallah sponsored a pickup basketball
tournament with a first prize of $2,500. A festival at Ramallah's
Palace of Culture featured dance and music groups from Turkey, Germany
and France and had sellout crowds.
The Danish hip hop group Outlandish recently performed for
2,000 fans, including teenage girls in jeans and tank tops. With
black-clad Palestinian riot police watching from the sidelines, the
excited crowd danced, whistled and sang along.
The next night, an Iraqi singer had hundreds swaying to his music at an outdoor performance.
"This is new in our life and we deserve to live like the
others," said audience member Maher Saleh, 29, who works for an
An internationally supported law-and-order campaign by Abbas
has been critical to the changed atmosphere. He started cracking down
two years ago after the PA lost Gaza to Hamas.
After the second intifada broke out in 2000, vigilante gunmen
ruled and security forces were largely powerless. Even regular people
took it as license to ignore such basics as paying utility bills.
Now they're even being made to wear seat belts while driving.
Police are visible in the streets, the vigilantes have turned over
their weapons and Hamas operatives - the main opponents of the
government - have gone underground.
While Islamists have deepened their hold on Gaza, there are
signs that in the West bank, the traditionally secular nature of
Palestinian society, which receded during troubled times, is beginning
to reassert itself.
Mosques still draw bigger crowds for Friday prayers than they
did two decades ago, but men and women mingle easily in public and
preachers haven't attempted to stop the summer fun.
The outside world has come closer in other, unexpected ways:
China has led the way in swamping the West Bank with foreign goods, and
Persian Gulf firms plan to build large housing complexes.
The new feeling of safety has encouraged some Palestinians to
invest, particularly in the former terrorist strongholds of Nablus and
Jenin, though most business people still hedge their bets.
In Nablus, cinemas were shut down by uprising activists in the
late 1980s, and when one briefly reopened in 2006, militants shut it at
gunpoint, saying it was inappropriate to have fun at a time of national
But now the 175-seat Cinema City, built for $2 million in a new
10-story commercial high-rise, is showing four films a day, mainly
Egyptian dramas and comedies but also Hollywood fare like Transformers.
A former Nablus terrorist, Mahdi Abu Ghazaleh, embodies the
change. Once a member of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, he has won amnesty
from Israel, like many of his cohorts. He got married this month and
now works in the family wholesale business, selling leather goods and
In Jenin, the flagship of change is Herbawi home furnishings, a
seven-story tribute to consumerism with gleaming floors and carefully
arranged displays. A world away from the West Bank's typical
mom-and-pop stores, it carries Krupps espresso machines, along with
furniture imported from Malaysia and Turkey.
Durgham Zakarneh, 32, makes only makes $600 a month as a civil
servant, but he has managed to buy a refrigerator for $400 in 11
monthly payments. "Life is much better now," he said. "People can do
business without worrying."
Other Herbawi stores will open soon in other West Bank cities,
said Ziad Turabi, manager of the fledgling chain. Like the Nablus
cinema manager, Turabi said he wouldn't have made the $4m. investment
in Jenin without the new sense of security, provided in part by
disciplined police freshly trained in neighboring Jordan in a
However, Israeli checkpoints still put a damper on the
business. The separation barrier, built to keep out suicide bombers,
cuts off the Herbawi store in Jenin from a valued clientele - Israeli
Arabs. Israel doesn't allow its citizens to drive through the barrier
crossing closest to Jenin, so they have to detour several kilometers to
get to Herbawi's.
Even so, there's more freedom of movement. The Hawara roadblock
outside Nablus used to be the West Bank's worst bottleneck, allowing
Palestinians to cross only on foot after long waits. Now, for the first
time since 2000, they can drive through.
The IDF has loosened the other checkpoints around
the city, and large crowds are expected at the city's monthlong
shopping festival, which featured an attempt to get into the Guinness
Book of World Records with a city-block-length tray of kunafa, a
Saleh, the ad agency employee, said he's ready to have a good time after years of gloom.
"We had an uprising, we had hardship under occupation," he said. "We need singing and joy. We need to live a human life."