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From Kalashnikovs to knafa - Jesse Aizenstat

Oct. 27, 2009 4:23 A.M. (Updated: Oct. 27, 2009 6:04 A.M.)
Nablus is alive again. In just two years, its casbah has gone from militants wielding kalashnikovs to baking the largest plate of knafa on record. One can feel its bustling culture through the ancient walls of its narrow souk.

"You just wouldn't recognize it today," says Alaa Abu Dheer, the public relations director at An-Najah National University.

"You can see the progress; many in former military groups are now working as police officers, the Israeli raids are down to few a month, Palestinians from Israel come on Saturdays to boost our economy with shopping," he adds.

All of this is true. Perhaps even more. But Abu Dheer understands - like everyone seems to in Nablus - the vulnerability of this progress. The full reopening of the Huwwara checkpoint, he says, is the best example of how the occupation could again cripple the city. Probably overnight.

Indeed, just because a few checkpoints were relaxed, shopping is up, and the awe-inspiring new downtown cinema offers a glimpse of normalcy doesn't mean Nablus has escaped the occupation. Its recent improvements should fool no one, yet they continue to.

An alarming amount of coverage in the international press seems to have come down with a case of "occupation isn't so bad" syndrome. These there-for-the-moment reporters have been more focused on the new thrills of the Nablus cinema than the people's actual grievances. They miss the fact that progress is lost to checkpoints and military raids.

Everyone in Nablus says it's the gem of Palestine. It is a city as old as the biblical Samaritan women who once offered water to Jesus; for thousands of years it was enriched by steady trade with neighboring cities. Although Nablus is still surrounded by checkpoints, most of them have been reduced to a few teenage Israeli solders joking around or smoking cigarettes. But at any time, the humiliating, open-air checkpoints of the past could be reopened.

Sixty percent of today's West Bank is classified as Area C, placing it under the full authority of Israel. This means schools, shopping centers, even laying water pipes is not permitted outside the city without express consent of the Israeli government. Nablus is surrounded by the opportunity-crushing reality of the occupation.

Foreigners who wish to help - be it through an NGO, investigative journalism or scholarly research - are often hassled by Israeli officials who maintain control over all borders and visas. Only the most determined foreigner willing to shake off Israeli interrogators and brave the narrow and vastly inefficient Palestinian roads of the West Bank can enter. This policy is clearly designed to keep the world in the dark about the realities of Israel's occupation.

Unemployment in the West Bank is over 19 percent. Over half of Palestinian youth between the ages of 15 and 29 do not work or study. As for those who do work, the International Labor Organization estimates that most make between 1,500 to 2,000 Israeli shekels (about 400 to 550 dollars) a month. Nablus most certainly is responsible for keeping these numbers as high as they are, although it's all subject to the mood of Israel's occupation czars.

"For the longest time," Abu Dheer continues from his home just outside the Old City, "I thought Nablus was dying. It is better now. Much. But this is no gift from the Israelis; it is our right to build our city as we wish. We must not forget the Israeli occupation created this mess."

As for now, the people of Nablus seem happy enough to trade in their kalashnikovs for knafa. The days of fighting militias and abundant Israeli raids have been, at least temporarily, replaced with cultural festivities and catching flicks.

But make no mistake, the clock could be turned back on Nablus at any moment. While there's always room for progress and entrepreneurship, "it will mean nothing," Abu Dheer points out, "if the Israelis again decide to strangle our city."

The author is a freelance journalist in the United States. He blogs at www.bloggingthecasbah.com.
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