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Nablus shopping festival brightens up West Bank

MYT 8:30:54 PM

NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad opened a month-long shopping festival on Saturday in the West Bank city of Nablus, marking a fresh start for the commercial hub that is reviving after years of decay.

The festivities began with traditional dancing and tours of the old city, which resembles a big souk offering almost everything Palestinian shoppers need.

Mabarra Zagha, 18, grew up in Nablus during years of conflict with Israel, with armed Palestinian militias in the streets of the city and Israeli army checkpoints at its gates, tightly controlling access.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since seizing control in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Zagha can now enjoy the spectacle of Palestinian visitors from out of town, including Arab citizens of next-door Israel, spending their money in her newly bustling town -- and can even go to the cinema for the first time in her life.

The change is due to a two-year drive by the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas to impose law and order, replacing gunmen with security forces to persuade Israel that it is time to relax its grip on the city.

The "economic capital of Palestine", once-thriving Nablus was largely off limits to many Palestinians after the Israeli army encircled it with checkpoints and military bases following the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) of 2000.

A few weeks ago, Israel dismantled one of its biggest checkpoints in the occupied territory, at the gateway to the city, where for years Palestinians on foot, in cars and buses spent millions of man-hours waiting to be cleared to pass.

"Nablus has become an address for steadfastness and hope," said Fayyad, after cutting the ribbon to mark the start of festivities attended by thousands of cheerful Palestinians.

Cinema City opened recently and hopes to join and benefit from Nablus's scheduled "shopping month" to celebrate the city's new commercial elan.

"I feel great. This my first time in a cinema," Zagha told Reuters last week. Her friend Zein Masri said it was "really important to have this means of entertainment like the rest of the world".

RESIDENTS WANT TO RELAX

Big signs welcoming guests have replaced political graffiti and posters of militants and civilians killed in the past years.

Nablus residents are also returning to health clubs that were closed for eight years. More people are dining in restaurants and hanging out at cafes.

"We need to enjoy and have fun. We have a natural right to live like other people. The past years were so hard on us," Zagha said.

The Palestinians have established security with considerable help from Western backers, using security forces whose training in Jordan was funded and directed by the United States.

"Two years ago, I couldn't have come to Nablus. The last time I was here was quite different from this time," said Tony Blair, envoy for the Quartet of Middle East negotiators, during a visit to Nablus last week.

"You see the change in the economic activity and that's because the Palestinians are providing their own security today and doing it well," he said. "The truth in Nablus is changing."

To the astonishment of many, patrols are even handing out tickets imposing fines on drivers who do not fasten seat belts.

Cinema City is a modest, $2 million project in a newly built 10-storey building in the city centre. It shows four films per day, including the latest Egyptian movies and Hollywood films such as the 2008 Oscar-winning "The Dark Knight".

Manager Farouq al-Masri said he had filled 150 seats and hoped to reach full capacity of 174. "This is an attempt to revive normal life for people, away from chaos," he said.

"People are desperate to live normal lives."

(Additional reporting by Atef Sa'ad in Nablus)

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