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Palestinians in West Bank craving joy

After years of strife with Israel, many have decided to carve out

August 23, 2009|Mohammed Daraghmeh | Daraghmeh writes for the Associated Press.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Middle-class women shop for imported furniture in a marble-and-glass emporium. A new movie house is screening "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 normality.

Exhausted after more than two decades of on-and-off conflict with Israel and deeply skeptical about the 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 Nadia Aweida, a homemaker in her 50s, after taking in a dance show in Ramallah.

It would seem that the West Bank, under U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has finally made the first steps toward the stability the international community has tried to foster with massive foreign aid and training for Abbas' security forces.

But the hopeful signs come with many qualifiers.

Though Israel has removed several West Bank checkpoints, other obstacles still limit Palestinian travel to half the territory. The economy is no longer in free fall but it 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 Islamic militant group controls the Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed blockade for two years and is growing steadily poorer.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been expanding, and Palestinians fear that the idea of "economic peace" espoused by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a weak substitute for a state of their own.

With unemployment widespread, many Palestinians still struggle to get by. But those with a little cash in their pockets, including those with steady government jobs, say they're tired of waiting for the comforts of a world they can see only on the Internet and TV.

Palestinian companies in Ramallah are sponsoring a pickup basketball tournament, first prize $2,500. A festival at Ramallah's Palace of Culture featuring dance and music groups from Turkey, Germany and France is drawing 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 crowd danced, whistled and sang along.

The next night, hundreds swayed to an Iraqi singer's music at an outdoor venue.

"This is new in our life and we deserve to live like the others," said audience member Maher Saleh, 29, who works for an advertising agency.

An internationally supported law-and-order campaign by Abbas has been key to the changed atmosphere in the West Bank. Abbas started cracking down two years ago after he lost Gaza -- the other territory that is supposed to make up a Palestinian state -- to Hamas.

After the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that erupted in 2000, vigilante gunmen ruled and security forces were largely powerless. Even ordinary people took it as license to ignore such basics as paying utility bills.

Now even the wearing of seat belts is being enforced. Police are visible in the streets, the vigilantes have handed over their weapons and Hamas militants -- the main opponents of the government -- have gone underground.

The relative calm could help sway skeptics in Israel who think that if Israeli troops left the West Bank, chaos would ensue and militants would take over.

Though Islamists have deepened their hold on Gaza, there are signs that in the West bank, the traditionally secular nature of Palestinian society 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 clerics haven't tried to stop this summer's 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 companies plan to build large housing complexes.

The new feeling of safety has prompted some Palestinians to invest, particularly in the former militant strongholds of Nablus and Jenin in the northern West Bank, though most businesspeople still hedge their bets.

In Nablus, cinemas were shut down amid uprisings in the late 1980s, and when one briefly reopened in 2006, militants closed it at gunpoint, saying it was inappropriate to have fun at a time of national struggle.

But now the 175-seat Cinema City, built for $2 million in a new 10-story commercial high-rise, is showing four movies a day, mainly Egyptian dramas and comedies but also Hollywood fare such as "Transformers" (the 2008 version).

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