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Behind the Headlines: Business is Booming in Nablus Despite Closure of Territories

Peering down on this city from the top of Mount Gerizim, it looks like business as usual.

The densely populated casbah is humming with activity. The monotonous sound of pounding hammers and drills is an indication of the construction boom, and soldiers are hardly in sight.

It is hard to detect the intifada and miseries of daily life in Nablus.

Despite predictions that the army-imposed closure of the territories would cripple the economy and lead to unrest, this city — the largest in the West Bank — appears to be quiet and doing relatively well economically.

Statistics show a much more positive picture than could have been anticipated when the army revived the “Green Line” separating the territories from Israel proper four months ago and banned most of the Palestinian population in the territories from entering Israel.

Although Palestinians mention the menacing figure of 40 percent unemployment, the number of job-seekers here does not appear to be that high.

Officials of the Israeli Civil Administration say that out of the 10,000 Nablus residents who used to make a living in Israel proper, 3,000 have returned to work there, many others have found continuous construction work in the nearby Jewish settlements, and others are engaged in the building boom that has overtaken this city.

Though some have stayed at home, they do not make up 40 percent.

One can hardly pass a block in Nablus without seeing a new construction project. Construction labor is cheaper than in the past; local entrepreneurs feel that now is a better time than ever to invest in real estate; and the army, eager to encourage stability and normalization, is more willing to grant construction permits.

In some cases, the Civil Administration is even providing necessary funds for new construction, such as infrastructure for new industrial projects.

CONCERN ABOUT STABILITY

Local entrepreneurs are also investing in small and medium economic ventures, such as shoe and paint factories.

According to the Civil Administration, foreign investors, particularly Palestinians who have made their fortune in the Persian Gulf states, have expressed interest in larger massive investments, but want to be sure of Israel’s economic and political response.

Another concern of potential investors is how political developments will affect the region. Palestinian entrepreneurs have the money and the will to invest in the West Bank, but only if they are convinced the area is entering a period of stability.

Israeli military commanders stationed here say Nablus, a center of Palestinian nationalism, is indeed entering a period of stability.

Contrary to expectations that the closure would create a time bomb within the territories, Nablus is quieter now than ever.

Whereas in the past, local nationalist groups forced businesses to shut down in the early afternoon as a sign of solidarity with the intifada, now shops open until late at night. And the local muntaza, a large garden cafe, is humming with young couples and music.

“There is a feeling that people want to live,” said Col. Tal, the military commander of Nablus, who can only be identified by his first name. “They just do not want to see the army too much.”

Indeed, the army has changed tactics. Soldiers avoid direct confrontations with massive groups of Palestinians, and the army refrains from deploying troops in permanent positions.

Instead, small units are being moved from one point to another, according to specific needs. The fight against local terrorism and stone-throwers is carried out using “surgical means”; hitting hard at specific targets, usually identified by efficient intelligence.

BUT IS THE INTIFADA OVER?

The results are impressive, Col. Tal said with a self-assured smile in an interview this week. Out of hundreds of activists who used to be active in the city, only 15 are still on the most wanted list.

The local casbah, almost impenetrable to the army at the peak of the intifada, is now controlled by small patrols of soldiers.

“I can hardly envisage a situation which could return the intifada to its peak,” said Col. Tal.

Is the intifada over? Is the area really ripe for political changes? Even the self-confident Israeli military officers here would not go that far.

One officer said it is too early to tell whether the economic burden of the closure will eventually lead to social and political explosion.

But perhaps most important, what is true for Nablus does not necessarily hold for the rest of the West Bank, and certainly does not for the Gaza Strip, where the situation is much worse.

Most observers agree that everything depends on the political process. The continuing deadlock in the peace talks could reverse the current positive trends.

On the other hand, a breakthrough could set off an economic boom, and then Nablus could boast at having been a pioneering forerunner of change.

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