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Senior leaders of rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas are expressing cautious optimism that their parties may soon be able to come together and form a national unity government, possibly by month's end. They're trying to end international sanctions and a violent internal power struggle. But false starts have happened before, only to devolve back into bloody factional fighting.
As the two sides strive to unify nationally, on the local level Hamas and Fatah loyalists in several towns have managed to cooperate and even prosper together. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Long-standing tensions between the two factions took a violent turn soon after the Islamist group Hamas swept parliamentary elections in January. In Gaza and some parts of the West Bank, the rivalry sparked mass protests, strikes and street violence that have left more than 175 Palestinians dead this year. But in the West Bank town of Beita, just south of Nablus, there is close cooperation that some see as a potential model for future inter-Palestinian relations.
Mayor ARAB AL-SHARIFA (Beita): (Foreign language spoken)
WESTERVELT: Arab Sharifa is Beita's mayor and a committed member of Hamas. Dressed in a sharp grey suit and sweater-vest, he warmly greets the town's former mayor and committed Fatah member, Wasif Mahala(ph). Over sweet tea and dessert, Sharifa says when he was elected to the top job two years ago, he inherited a town in rough financial shape. But despite some local anger at Fatah for alleged mismanagement, Mayor Sharifa turned to Fatah for help. He say Fatah members not as rivals, he says, but as partners in efforts to rebuild the town.
Mayor AL-SHARIFA: (Through translator) We never underestimated the importance of Fatah. Fatah is our real partner. We never made them feel less than victorious or less than important. That was our first tactic. Secondly, we managed to prioritize the welfare of this town over any factional or personal agendas.
WESTERVELT: There are now six Hamas and five Fatah members on the town council. Despite strong differences in their party platforms, the two sides have managed to form a productive, even warm, working relationship to improve the economic life of Beita, a farm town of 10,000 people whose landscape is dotted with olive and almond trees and Roman ruins on its hillside.
Nationally, the Palestinian Authority is in tatters. Bankrupt and badly in debt, the Authority has been unable to pay workers their full salaries for more than nine months. But the Beita municipality has pulled itself out of debt. Unlike most of the West Bank towns, city hall here regularly meets its payroll for local workers and monthly expenses. The phones work, the roads are in decent shape, there's new construction. Former Mayor Mahala, now a city councilman, says through dialogue, Hamas and Fatah here have succeeded in ways their counterparts on the national level have not.
Mr. WASIF MAHALA (Former Mayor, Beita): (Through translator) The most important element here is finding the right people to talk to each other. The level of maturity between the members has been vital, and we have found that among ourselves.
WESTERVELT: Mahala wears a full-length, hooded, Moroccan-wool robe, a jelabah, and pointy-toed yellow leather sandals. But don't let the traditional outfit fool you. His new cell phone rings incessantly. The city councilman travels regularly to Turkey and Dubai in search of new investors and new projects. Instead of blaming everything on Israel, these two factions instead took action. They formed several new revenue-generating, public/private partnerships unique to West Bank towns.
Mr. MAHALA: (Through translator) Because of the lack of funds, because of the sanctions of the national government, we decided to think in a different way and invest with the private sector.
WESTERVELT: The town is now part owner of a wholesale fruit and vegetable trading center. Beita cut out the middle man. Now merchants from around the West Bank come here to buy and sell produce. The city also put up half the capital to create the Beita Rural Company, which will soon start filtering, bottling and selling water from a local spring.
Nothing, it seems, fosters factional peace like a little prosperity. In the buzzing produce market, there are giant crates of apples from the Golan Heights, tangerines from a local kibbutz, pears and potatoes from other parts of the West Bank. Muspa Feis Abuname(ph) runs two fruit stalls here. He says the Fatah/Hamas working partnership has de-politicized the town.
Mr. MUSTFA HIES ABUNYAM (Food Vendor) (Through translator): Even though they say the mayor is from Hamas, he has nothing to do with factional fights. He's just trying to find opportunities for his people to make a better living, Abunyam says. Nobody in Beita really thinks this guy is Hamas and this one is Fatah.
WESTERVELT: Often overlooked by Israel and the West, Mayor Asharafa says is that a big part of Hamas's local popularity in the West Bank has been its ability to deliver on clean efficient government, and not the strident ideological opposition to Israel voiced by many of Hamas's national leaders. This Hamas mayor's financial successes have even garnered him enough political capital to break away from the official Hamas charter, which seeks the destruction of Israel.
Mayor Sharifa says he would recognize the Jewish state, side by side with the new Palestinian one, based on pre-1967 War borders.
Mayor AL-SHARIFA: (Through translator): I would accept a two states solution on the basis of justice and equality, and not on the basis of oppression and suppression.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Beita has already established some nascent ties with Israel. The mayor says several months ago, it was the only West Bank town to accept an invitation from a 12-member Israeli medical team offering to treat Palestinians.
Mayor AL-SHARIFA: (Through translator) For political reasons, most villages and towns rejected this offer, but when we heard about it we immediately welcomed the Israeli team. They came into out town and 500 citizens were treated. There is a shared humanity between the Israelis and Palestinians, if you dig and look for it.
WESTERVELT: The town still has huge problems. Unemployment remains high. Fruit market employees bitterly complain that Israeli army road closures and military occupation restrictions keep them from returning to their homes in nearby Nablus. Most workers sleep on thin mattresses in the back of the fruit warehouse. And Mayor Sharifa acknowledges that stabilizing a small town is far different than stabilizing a fledgling state, but he hopes Fatah and Hamas leaders nationally take note of Beita.
Mayor AL-SHARIFA: (Through translator) The Palestinian people have never been more ready for these two parties to make compromises and reach a unity agreement. There is no other choice. If they don't, a new party will have to emerge to represent the aspirations of the majority of Palestinians.
WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Beita, in the northern West Bank.
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