Tue, Jul 14, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Niches of happiness in the West Bank

Secular elements of Palestinian society have allowed people in the West Bank to attempt to make the most of their lives, unlike in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip

By Mohammed Daraghmeh  /  AP , RAMALLAH, WEST BANK

Middle-class matrons shop for imported furniture in a marble-and-glass emporium. A new movie house is screening the Hollywood blockbuster 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 Ramallah.

It would seem that the West Bank, under US-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, has finally made first steps toward the stability that 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 economy is no longer in free fall, but 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 the Islamic militant group Hamas in control of 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 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 people 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 US$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 in changing the 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.

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