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Kai Ryssdal: U.S. officials have been meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are still a sticking point between the two sides. But overall violence in the West Bank is at its lowest level in years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has relaxed some restrictions on travel through West Bank checkpoints, which has brought with it some new commercial opportunities. Daniel Estrin reports from the West Bank city of Jenin.
DANIEL ESTRIN: On the streets of Jenin, there are posters of dead militants. It’s a reminder of a time about seven years ago. Then, dozens of suicide bombers left for Israel and Israeli soldiers imposed frequent closures on the West Bank. Today, with its U.S.-trained police force, Jenin is one of the territory’s safest cities.
Entrepreneurs are cashing in on the calm. One is trying to re-brand the city with the help of flat-screen TVs and espresso machines.
ZIAD TURABI: The atmosphere, the security, the situation is now it’s OK. You can invest in this city.
Ziad Turabi is the son of a Mercedes dealer and a graduate of an interior- design program at a Palestinian university. He and two friends took a risk unprecedented in Jenin. They invested $5 million in a landmark new commercial venture here — the Hirbawi Home Center, a palatial furnishings outlet that stretches over five floors.
Traditional Arabic music pipes through the speakers in cavernous showrooms full of sofas, refrigerators and deluxe chef knives. Only a handful of customers are here. But Turabi is patient. He says there are plenty of Palestinians who are well-off, but they’re barred from entering Israel to shop.
TURABI: We feel really that the people need this kind of business. So we find that people have money, want to spend, want to buy something good, and don’t find nobody can offer them.
Turabi’s enterprise is the first of its type in the entire West Bank. People here are used to trudging through open-air markets and small strip malls. Turabi’s store offers a free delivery service, a generous U.S.-style returns policy and one-stop shopping for a wide range of foreign brands like Pyrex and LG.
Down on the first floor, Tayseer Samara is sitting on a $1,400 sofa that he thinks he’ll buy.
Samara works as a building contractor inside Israel. But most people in Jenin don’t have coveted Israeli work permits, or the higher salaries that go with them. That may be why business has been slow since the store’s grand opening three months ago. But the Hirbawi Center isn’t the only recent thing to boost Jenin’s economy recently.
For the past two months, the outdoor markets of Jenin and other West Bank towns have filled every weekend with about 500 Arab-Israelis who have just been allowed to go on shopping sprees in the Palestinian territory. Until recently, Israel banned them from these cities. But the governor of Jenin, Mousa Qadoura, says the local economy won’t be saved by these Saturday outings. He points out that the Israeli checkpoint is closed the rest of the week. And he doesn’t have much hope for the Hirbawi Home Center either.
MOUSA QADOURA: Hirbawi is beautiful. But it would be more beautiful if there would be people inside. I think it is a bad investment right now.
Hirbawi’s CEO Ziad Turabi has more faith. He and his partners plan to open this year in other West Bank cities. And they’re excited that their example is encouraging other Jenin storekeepers to gussy up their display cases and more aggressively promote their merchandise. It may seem odd to be excited about your competition, but they all share the same mission: to revitalize the city.
In Jenin, I’m Daniel Estrin for Marketplace.
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