The National (Analysis)
September 10, 2010 - 12:00am

RAMALLAH // On the eve of Eid al Fitr, Rukab Street was gripped in the traditional holiday fervour.

Hijab-clad women and their Christian counterparts, in knee-length skirts and floral shirts, bumped shoulders as they thronged shoe stores and sweet shops for last-minute bargains. Employees at coffee shops busily scrubbed their storefronts in anticipation of customers after iftar.

Unlike previous years, the end of the holy month came amid unmistakable signs of prosperity.

Thanks to a push by Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, to strengthen governing institutions and an influx of foreign aid, together with a more discreetly calibrated Israeli military presence in the West Bank, there are signs that the West Bank’s economy is gaining momentum.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Rukab Street. Scores of new restaurants and juice bars line the street’s pavements. Restrictions have been more relaxed during this year’s holy month, such as allowing alcohol to be served at some restaurants.

Palestinian Authority police have been deployed in force, attempting to bring a semblance of order to the traffic that jams the Rukab.

Money is flowing, evident in the cascade of grand openings during the holy month.

“Really, I’m too busy to talk,” Islam Nofal, an interior designer, said as he hastily made the final touches to the facade of a fresh juice bar, which he was opening that day. He was instructing employees on where to hang banners as he spoke. Blaring in the background was the American pop diva Lady Gaga’s hit Love Games.

“We are hopeful,” he shouted as he shook hands with people passing along the street, “it will be very busy tonight.”

Mr Nofal set aside his business in Italy to take advantage of increasing business opportunities in Ramallah. But like many in Mr Nofal’s situation, the inspiration to invest back in the West Bank is driven more by the nostalgia of home than prospects of wildly large returns on investment.

This can also be a recipe for disappointment if – or, as many here predictably say, when – the economy swoons in the face of political instability or even war.

“If we are occupied, nothing will change,” an unenthusiastic Najib Haresh, 48, owner of a small appliance store, said of Israel’s control of the West Bank.

Even amid the vibrancy of Rukab Street, the commercial heart of Ramallah, there are signs of desperation and poverty – scruffy young boys hawking balloons, miniature Palestinian flags and other cheap trinkets along the queue of snarled vehicles.

Indeed, for Samir Rukab, 38, the previously dashed hopes for a resolution to the conflict have made him cautious. When he moved back to Ramallah from the United States in 1994 to take over the family business, expectations that lasting peace could be forged between Israelis and Palestinians were high.

Then came years of stagnation. In 2000 came the second intifada. It was followed by the fracturing of the Palestinian leadership after the Islamist group Hamas’s victory during the 2006 elections. Throughout the turmoil, his ice-cream shop, Rukab, which the street is named after, took an irrecoverable plunge.

“If you ask anyone, they’ll tell you it was better 10 years ago,” said Mr Rukab, as his employees served up the traditional gummy Arabic ice cream that his restaurant has been preparing for more than 70 years.

Mr Rukab’s expectations for the evening’s potential for a boom in business were overshadowed by what he feared would be an all too familiar cycle: the collapse of peace talks, more violence, more Israeli restrictions and a slowdown in business.

“We don’t know what will happen,” he said. “I guess everybody keeps thinking about the past. When somebody’s optimistic and then nothing happens, they look at the history and they don’t like what they see.”

But for a slightly more optimistic Fahdy Odeh, the decision to open up a second branch of his business just around the corner from Rukab Street reflects a hope that the cycle may end. “You see how there’s so much traffic now,” said Mr Odeh, 33, whose shop sells chocolate and assortments of nuts. “People want to buy our nuts, but the traffic in Ramallah has made it too hard for them.”

His post-Ramadan hopes hinge on the ongoing peace talks, he said as he shook the hands of several customers, giving a few of the lucky ones free pieces of chocolate.

Then his mood grew sombre when it came to the alternative to forging peace. If the talks collapse, he said, the precarious balance that has created the stability to expand his business would be upset.

From there, said Mr Odeh, it would be “down, down, down.”



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