It is difficult to turn on a TV or radio or pick up a newspaper these days without finding some pundit or other deploring the dismal prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace or the dreadful living conditions of the Palestinians. Even supposedly neutral news reporters regularly repeat this sad tale. “Very little is changing for the Palestinian people on the ground,” I heard BBC World Service Cairo correspondent Christian Fraser tell listeners three times in a 45-minute period the other evening.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. I had spent that day in the West Bank’s largest city, Nablus. The city is bursting with energy, life, and signs of prosperity, in a way I have not previously seen in many years of covering the region.
As I sat in the plush office of Ahmad Aweidah, the suave, British-educated banker who heads the Palestinian Securities Exchange, he told me that the Nablus stock market was the second-best-performing in the world so far in 2009, after Shanghai. (Aweidah’s office looks directly across from the palatial residence of Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri, the wealthiest man in the West Bank.)
Later I met Bashir al-Shakah, director of Nablus’s gleaming new cinema, where four of the latest Hollywood hits were playing that day. Most movies were sold out, he noted, proudly adding that the venue had already hosted a film festival since it opened in June.
Wandering around downtown Nablus, the shops and restaurants I saw were full. There were plenty of expensive cars on the streets. Indeed I counted considerably more BMWs and Mercedes than I’ve seen, for example, in downtown Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
And perhaps most important of all, we had driven from Jerusalem to Nablus without going through any Israeli checkpoints. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has removed them all since the Israeli security services (with the encouragement and support of Pres. George W. Bush) were allowed, over recent years, to crush the intifada, restore security to the West Bank, and set up the conditions for the economic boom that is now occurring. (There was one border post on the return leg of the journey, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but the young female guard just waved me and the two Palestinians I was traveling with through.)
The shops and restaurants were also full when I visited Hebron recently, and I was surprised to see villas comparable in size to those on the Cote d’Azur or Bel Air had sprung up on the hills around the city. Life is even better in Ramallah, where it is difficult to get a table in a good restaurant. New apartment buildings, banks, brokerage firms, luxury car dealerships, and health clubs are to be seen. In Qalqilya, another West Bank city that was previously a hotbed of terrorists and bomb-makers, the first-ever strawberry crop is being harvested in time to cash in on the lucrative Christmas markets in Europe. Local Palestinian farmers have been trained by Israeli agriculture experts and Israel supplied them with irrigation equipment and pesticides.
A new Palestinian city, Ruwabi, is to be built soon north of Ramallah. Two weeks ago, the Jewish National Fund, an Israeli charity, helped plant 3,000 tree seedlings for a forested area the Palestinian planners say they would like to develop on the edge of the new city. Israeli experts are also helping the Palestinians plan public parks and other civic amenities.