Trade blossoms as Israel eases chokehold on Nablus

NABLUS, West Bank Wed Sep 17, 2008 9:14am EDT

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NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) - Trade is blooming in Nablus after eight years of commercial drought, as Arabs from Israel return to shop in a city declared off-limits in 2000 as a font of Palestinian militancy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"I have not set foot in Nablus since the beginning of the Intifada in 2000," said Njeidat, a chef from the Galilee area to the north, home to many of Israel's million Arab citizens.

He came down with his family a few days ago and filled his car with purchases including the prized Nablus kunafa, a sweet Arab delicacy that has been out of bounds to him because of the formidable network of Israeli checkpoints and security walls.

This month Israel is allowing its Arab citizens, previously barred from Palestinian-controlled areas, to enter West Bank cities as part of an effort to provide a badly-needed economic boost. The door is open for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends in two weeks.

Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint simply waved the visitors through. In a reversal of roles Palestinian police stopped the drivers to check registration papers.

"We have to do this to ensure no stolen cars enter Nablus and to ensure your safety. Thank you and welcome to Nablus," one policeman told an Israeli Arab driver, with a winning smile.

Chamber of Commerce President Basel Kanaan said such a scene would have been impossible had Nablus not been a focal point of a recent U.S.-backed Palestinian law-and-order campaign.

"The Israeli decision to allow the entry of Israeli-Arabs to Nablus is good. But our economy will only improve if occupation ends," Kanaan said.

STEP BY STEP

No one is betting when that might be. But Nablus hopes Israel will extend the new freedom beyond its planned duration for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"We hope this move will last beyond Ramadan to help revive the economy of Nablus," said Kanaan's deputy Omar Hashem, as Israeli Arab visitors drove in past welcome signs declaring: "Nablus prospers with you".

Nablus, historically the West Bank's commercial hub, was largely controlled by gunmen in the wake of the September 2000 Palestinian uprising, and was a symbol of lawlessness.

Unemployment in the city climbed to 40 percent as travel bans bit into economic activity.

Now Western-backed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad wants Israel to help improve trade by removing the barriers, and Middle East envoy Tony Blair is also pressing to reduce checkpoints.

Fayyad's law-and-order campaign has shown enough success to convince Israel to test relaxing the ban.

The stimulating potential of such a step was clear at the Nablus mall, which was bustling with relatively affluent Israeli Arab families on a buying spree.

They swarmed over sweets shops and crowded into narrow alleys of the city to buy clothes, furniture, and vegetables. And some feted relatives and old friends at reunion dinners.

"This will help boost the Palestinian economy, plus we can buy cheaper," said Maysoon Abu Kishek, from the city of Lod in Israel.

Nablus businessman Othman Musleh agreed. "Now there's a sense of hope that the economy will gradually pick up."

(Additional reporting by Atef Saad; Editing by Douglas Hamilton)

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