Youth center aims to lure teens from extremism

Beita center one of five to open across West Bank, with a total investment of US$5 million by USAID, the international aid arm of the US government.

case steve and wife 248.88 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
case steve and wife 248.88
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
A US-funded youth center that has opened in this Palestinian village is meant to show America at its can-do best: It will teach English and computer courses, hoping to provide an antidote to political extremism along the way. But if organizers hope the locals will also learn to love America a little - that's a much harder sell. Many Palestinians believe the US routinely sides with Israel and thus is directly responsible for their hardships under Israeli occupation, such as the ubiquitous army roadblocks that disrupt movement in the West Bank. Beita, a village of 10,000 residents - about 1,500 of them unemployed - is no exception. Ayman Yamak, an 18-year-old accounting student from Beita, said he's eager to take courses at the center, but that won't change his negative view of the US government. "America is against the Arab world," he said, even as he lined up with other village teens and drum-beating scouts to receive a high-powered delegation of diplomats, philanthropists and high-tech executives during the ceremonial opening this month of the three-story center. Among the guests were America Online founder Steve Case and his wife, Jean, who heads the philanthropic Case Foundation. The Beita center is one of five to open across the West Bank, with a total investment of US$5 million by USAID, the international aid arm of the US government, said USAID official Elizabeth Price. The idea is to reach some 7,500 young Palestinians and eventually branch out by delivering the programs via Internet to smaller youth clubs in more remote areas. US companies, like Intel Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., are pitching in with services and training. It's part of the US-Palestinian Partnership, an attempt by the US private sector to help develop the Palestinian economy. The youth centers are to help boost support for Palestinian moderates, Price said, adding that improving perceptions of the US is only a secondary goal. Still, it's clearly important. James Glassman, who leads the US State Department's effort to improve America's image abroad, attended the ceremony. Glassman has been promoting what he calls a "war of ideas," or confronting violent ideologies and trying to lure young people away from extremism by offering them economic opportunities. Youth centers and exchange programs are an important tool, he said. "We do these things in other parts of the world, and we know they have an impact," he said. Glassman acknowledged that US popularity remains low in parts of the world. "We are also feeling the effects of policies that people especially in Europe and the Middle East are opposed to - Iraq, and in fact policies having to do with Palestinians and Israelis," he said. "But we've seen some good signs that things are ticking up on the image front," he added, citing a June survey by the Pew Research Center that found a slight increase in US popularity worldwide. In the West Bank, the main challenge to Palestinian moderates comes from Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized Gaza by force in 2007. The US-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank clamped down hard on Hamas after the Gaza takeover, arresting activists and trying to dry up funding. However, the Islamic militants have deep roots in Palestinian society, in part because of their social services network of clinics, schools and kindergartens. Mosque-based activities, including football teams, also help Hamas recruit youngsters. Beita has traditionally been a stronghold of Hamas' rival, the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. However, a Hamas candidate, Arab Shurafa, was elected mayor in 2005, in part because Fatah was divided. Shurafa, 43, said he is less interested in militant ideology than in improving life in Beita. He has forged an alliance with the Fatah minority on the village council. Together, the erstwhile opponents have brought a US$1.5 million mineral water packaging plant to the village that has created 25 jobs and is expected to add US$300,000 a year to municipal coffers. Despite such success, Shurafa was not invited to the opening of the youth center. The international community boycotts Hamas because of its refusal to renounce violence or recognize Israel. Beita's biggest problem is unemployment, with about 40 percent of the 3,500-strong work force out of a job. Many of them are laborers who lost jobs in Israel after fighting broke out in 2000. Israel now bars most Palestinians from its territory to keep out militants. Another headache is the crowded Hawara checkpoint located between the village and the nearby city of Nablus. About 1,000 students and workers from Beita make the trip every day, at times waiting in line for more than an hour. Beita resident Fadi Maali, 18, who studies in Nablus, said that instead of a youth center, he would prefer a push from the next US president for the Israelis to remove Hawara. But few expect dramatic changes from Barack Obama. Wasef Molla, a Fatah supporter who runs the water bottling plant, said he was inspired by Obama's hopeful message that people can improve their lives. But if the Americans want to be loved, they need to be fair, he said. "Only then can you change the image of the US."