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Latest update : 2009-06-28

More than 20 years after their cinemas were closed by the eruption of the first intifada, Palestinians in Nablus can go back to the movies. The Cinema City theatre is a sign that life in the Israeli-occupied territory may be slowly improving.

AFP - More than 20 years after their cinemas were shuttered by the eruption of the first intifada, Palestinians in the battered West Bank town of Nablus can finally go back to the movies.

The single-screen Cinema City theatre, in what was once a bastion of both Palestinian uprisings and the departure point for scores of suicide bombers, is a sign that life in the Israeli-occupied territory may be slowly improving.

"The idea's been around for a while but the security situation never allowed it to be implemented," says Marwan al-Masri, owner of the cinema which opened earlier this month.

"Thank God, now the security situation is stable. There's been nothing for two years."

Nablus could be a test case for the new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's idea of an "economic peace" that would postpone or even replace the agonising and elusive political compromises required for a two-state solution.

In the last two years the western-backed Palestinian Authority has deployed thousands of security forces, halting virtually all attacks against Israel and reining in the chaos that erupted in the wake of the bloody 2000 uprising.

In recent weeks the restrictions at the main Israeli-run checkpoint south of the city have been significantly loosened, and Arab Israelis are now allowed to visit the town on Saturdays to shop in its bustling Ottoman-era bazaar.

But Nablus's bloody recent history, etched on the remains of derelict cinemas from previous eras of prosperity, gives reason to doubt that economic development alone will calm the decades-old conflict.

In the years leading up to the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, the town's residents flocked to its four cinemas to see the latest Egyptian comedies, Hollywood blockbusters and Bollywood romances.

Majdi al-Asi remembers when the 870 seats of his family-run theatre were packed every weekend, with young men packing into the ground level and extended families reserving seats in the balcony.

But when the first intifada erupted in 1987, the town's businesses shut down for all but two hours every morning and the cinemas soon went out of business.

During the second and more violent Palestinian intifada which erupted in 2000, an Israeli shell crashed through the ceiling and unknown gunmen stole the projectors.

Today the theatre has been turned into a covered parking lot, its gilded ticket windows permanently shuttered along with the town's other cinemas, one of which dated back to the 1940s. None have been reopened.

"It makes me angry," Asi says as he looks around the empty room that used to be a snack bar. "It was a great cinema and a good source of income. It was part of our history."

The operators of Cinema City hope they will have better luck, but fear that if economic improvements are not accompanied by a diplomatic process bringing them closer to statehood that the unrest could return.

"There cannot be one without the other, there has to be economic development but also political progress," Raja Taher, a promoter for the cinema, says. "There is risk with any project. This is a burning spot on the map."

Others fear that the limited improvements in daily life will detract from the Palestinians' struggle for an independent state.

Lutfi Zaghlul, a Nablus-born poet, has fond memories of seeing Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Esther Williams on the big-screen as a young man, but says he has no plans to go to the new theatre.

"It's not the time for cinema. If we had our freedom, our independence and our sovereignty we would have a hundred cinemas," he says, adding that the six dollar ticket price is much higher than what he remembers paying in the 1960s.

"If I went it would just be to remember what the cinema used to be like ... I can watch movies on television."

Zaghlul casts a weary eye on the idea that the increased prosperity could be a substitute for a political settlement. "We all laugh among ourselves when they talk about an economic peace ... We want an end to the occupation."

Netanyahu gave a speech earlier this month where for the first time he tentatively endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, but only under strict conditions, many of which the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected.

In the meantime, Nablus's youth seem content to enjoy the calm while it lasts.

On a recent afternoon, Diana and two of her friends, all headscarf-wearing students in the local university, saw their first big screen movie ever, an Egyptian slapstick comedy.

"We cannot spend all our time feeling sad and depressed," she says with a smile. "We need to get out and think about other things."

Date created : 2009-06-28