Palestinians in West Bank craving joy

Daraghmeh writes for the Associated Press.

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).

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 recently got married and now works in the family wholesale business, selling leather goods and plastics.

In Jenin, the flagship of change is the Herbawi home furnishings store, 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 Krups espresso machines and furniture from Malaysia and Turkey.

Durgham Zakarneh, 32, makes just $600 a month as a civil servant, but he has managed to buy a $400 refrigerator 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. 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.

Though Israeli checkpoints put a damper on business, Israel says its troops also help keep a lid on militants.

A barrier built by Israel to keep out suicide attackers cuts off the Herbawi store 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 the store.

Even so, there's more freedom of movement. The Hawara roadblock outside Nablus used to be the West Bank's worst bottleneck, allowing Palestinians through only on foot after long waits. Now, for the first time since 2000, they can drive through. The Israeli army has also loosened its other checkpoints around the city, and large crowds are expected at Nablus' monthlong shopping festival.

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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Ali Daraghmeh in Nablus, Dalia Nammari in Ramallah and Mohammed Ballas in Jenin contributed to this report.

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