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Palestinians' Slice of Paradise on the Frontline

Mideast: A water park provides relief from the heat and the trials of Israeli occupation. But economic hard times are keeping many away.


BEIT JALA, West Bank — It's only 32 miles from here to the Mediterranean, but residents of the landlocked West Bank face daunting roadblocks and curfews to reach the sea.

So what do you do when it's 90 degrees in the shade, when the sun has baked the streets into a parched desert and the roads leading out of town are blocked by razor wire and Israeli tanks?

Improbably enough, a sprawling water park with a swimming pool, sparkling fountains, fanciful water wheel and a water slide is hidden away in this Palestinian town next to Bethlehem.

The cool expanse of turquoise is an oddity in what is functionally a war zone--not to speak of a war zone where the large Muslim population frowns on appearing in public in nothing but bathing suits. But for Palestinians, it's about the closest thing they'll find to a slice of paradise in this hot, hot summer.

"I miss the sand on my feet," 13-year-old Amanda Arja said as she relaxed on the park's grassy lawn with her girlfriends. "Everybody wants to go to the beach, but we can't, so we're lucky to have this."

The water park was the inspiration of a Palestinian American businessman, 49-year-old Jadallah Zaidan. He had spent seven years in Los Angeles, studying hotel management, working in construction and saving money, hoping to invest in his homeland.

Zaidan opened the $4-million Olive Tree Tourist Village in the summer of 2000, hoping to cash in on the crush of tourists expected in Bethlehem for the millennium year. He hired an Israeli artist to paint murals of camels and desert scenes on the walls. Among his first customers were members of a tour group from an Israeli kibbutz.

"We were counting on peace," Zaidan said. "We thought there would be millions of tourists coming to Bethlehem. We thought we would get people from both sides, Israelis, Palestinians, too."

Certainly nothing that Zaidan learned in hotel management school prepared him for what would happen: The Palestinian intifada against Israeli rule began two months after he opened. Beit Jala became engulfed in heavy fighting as Palestinian militias traded fire with Israeli troops in adjacent Jerusalem.

In the early months, Zaidan recalls, one could sit by the pool and watch the night sky light up with tracer fire and explosions.

A lawless atmosphere pervaded the West Bank. Palestinian gunmen would try to get into the water park without paying, wanting to swim, or more often to gawk at the teenage girls in bikinis.

Then there were problems with devout Muslims. They were displeased not only with the scanty attire of the girls but also with the fact that the water park served alcohol and had a discotheque and bingo hall.

"The [Muslim] women wanted to go into the water with their clothes on, veils and everything. But it would clog the filter and dye the water," said Zaidan, who is Christian.

The atmosphere in the West Bank is quieter these days, largely because the Israelis have imposed a strict curfew that limits business hours. But the Israelis tolerate the water park--who can make trouble in a bathing suit?--and it is actually busiest during the curfews.

"People have nothing else to do. If they live nearby, they can walk," Zaidan said.

"You can't be trapped all day in the house with your children. That's the hardest thing," said Sadeer Suhel, a 30-year-old homemaker who was picnicking on the lawn with her husband. "We need to have fun. We need to swim."

Still overcoming the culture shock of moving from California to the West Bank, Zaidan has learned to make compromises to keep his business going.

He hired off-duty police officers from the Palestinian Authority to stand guard and keep out the troublemaking Palestinian militiamen. He instituted a "ladies' day" on Wednesdays so that Muslim women would feel more comfortable. He now allows covered women to wade in the water, though he still strictly enforces the rule: no bathing suit, no swimming.

The biggest problem for the Olive Tree Tourist Village is the economic devastation wrought by the nearly 22-month-long uprising.

"People have no money," Zaidan said. "Almost everybody is unemployed."

Most of the customers are from wealthy Christian families in Beit Jala, but these are a tiny minority of the population.

In these troubled times, most West Bankers can no more imagine coughing up the 30 shekels ($6) for an adult ticket or 20 shekels ($4) for a child's admission to the water park than they can imagine getting into a car and driving to the beach in Tel Aviv.

Nearby at the Dahaisha refugee camp, many children--even teenagers--have never seen the sea, and some have never been swimming. The West Bank has no beaches--except along the dense, salty Dead Sea, which is suitable only for floating.

Although the Gaza Strip is blessed with a Mediterranean coast, it was difficult even in the best of times for West Bankers to get there.

"All that the children know of the sea is what they've seen on television," said Khalid Jamel, 31, a Dahaisha resident.

Last summer, hundreds of children from Dahaisha visited the Olive Tree Tourist Village through a summer camp sponsored by a European charity, but this year the money has dried up.

Zaidan says he has thought about closing the water park and leaving the West Bank.

"I have this ex-girlfriend in California. She's Jewish. She hears things on the news and says it is too dangerous here and that I should come back to California with my wife and kids," he said.

But Zaidan says he is still hoping to earn enough through the water park to pay off his bank loans.

Besides, he said, "where would people go swimming? We want to make life a little easier."

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