Mohammed Daraghmeh
Associated Press
July 11, 2009 - 12:00am

Middle-class matrons 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 normalcy.

Exhausted after more than two decades of on-and-off conflict with Israel 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 the town of Ramallah.

It would seem that the West Bank, under U.S.-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, has finally made 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.

While Israel has removed several West Bank checkpoints, other obstacles still limit Palestinian mobility to half the territory. The West Bank economy is no longer in free fall, but its growth is "insignificant" and cannot make up for the continued steep decline in Gaza, according to the World Bank. Whatever prosperity there is depends mainly on foreign aid.

Meanwhile, Abbas remains locked in a power struggle with the Islamic militant group Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, under Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed blockade for two years and growing steadily poorer.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank keep expanding, and Palestinians fear 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 just 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 only see 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 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 advertising agency.

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

After the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out 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 they're even being made to wear seat belts while driving. 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 uprising was characterized by suicide bombers striking in Israeli cities and drawing sweeping Israeli reprisals. Israeli raids in search of suspects still go on, but attacks on Israel have all but ended.

The West Bank's relative calm could help sway skeptics in Israel who feel Israeli troops cannot leave the territory for fear of ensuing chaos and a takeover by Islamic militants.

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 militant strongholds of Nablus and Jenin in the northern West Bank, 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 struggle.

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" (the 2008 version; the newly released sequel isn't here yet).

A former Nablus gunman, Mahdi Abu Ghazaleh, embodies the change. Once a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a feared militia, 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 plastics.

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 $4 million investment in Jenin without the new sense of security, provided in part by disciplined police freshly trained in neighboring Jordan in a U.S.-sponsored program.

However, Israeli checkpoints still put a damper on the business — though Israel would argue the presence of its troops also helps keep a lid on militants.

The Israeli separation barrier, built to keep out suicide attackers, 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 for miles 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 Israeli army has loosened the other checkpoints in its noose around the city, and large crowds are expected at the city's monthlong shopping festival, which will feature an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records with a city-block-length tray of kanafe, a sweet-and-sour pastry

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."


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