West Bank development strategy begins to bear fruit
NABLUS: Talking to people in a park here on a quiet Friday afternoon you really get the sense that the West Bank is moving forward under the prime ministership of Salam Fayyad and his Palestinian Authority (PA).
The progress does not get reported much, firstly because it is a slow incremental business and secondly because hemmed in Gaza, under its Hamas leadership, has produced all the spectacular news of late.
Nylam Koudoura, enjoying the early evening cool of Friday in the park told us, "things are much better today", following a security crackdown by Mr Fayyad's government.
"I can see the Palestinian state is there, it is coming along. We feel it in the street," she added.
Mrs Koudoura seems to echo the policy of the Palestinian Authority, that rather than waiting for diplomacy to produce the long awaited state, they should start building it themselves.
Clampdown on the militants
There could be no doubting Mrs Koudoura's sincerity - she spoke passionately, her eyes ablaze.
Everyone else we talked to in the park said similar things.
Anan Fahed for example remarked that "things are so much better now the Palestinian Authority has taken control".
The place where we spoke is just half a mile from Balata, a refugee camp long regarded as one of the West Bank's epicentres of militancy.
Journalists used to tread there with trepidation, because masked gunmen from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or the al-Aqsa Brigades could appear at any moment.
It is clear, talking to many in Nablus, that while the gunmen claimed a shroud of patriotic legitimacy, many of them combined crime with their political activism.
When Mr Fayyad sent his re-built police force into Balata last year to disarm the militants they were killing two birds with one stone - bringing better order to the streets of the town and cutting down to size those who regard the PA as collaborators with the Israelis and US.
Indeed the success of the PA in the West Bank marks the fruition of a Western strategy started three years ago when, following Hamas' strong showing in parliamentary elections, the Islamist movement seized power in Gaza and the two parts of the Palestinian Occupied Territories veered apart under different leaders.
Limits on investment
The flipside of tightening the Gaza blockade and refusing to talk to Hamas was a determination by the US, Israel and EU to turn the West Bank into a showcase for those who did want a two-state solution.
To a considerable extent that strategy has worked - but of course it can only get so far without a peace process that yields serious results from Israel.
Awash with donor cash, projects and the zeal of Palestinian entrepreneurs, the West Bank economy has grown substantially since Mr Fayyad became prime minister three years ago.
But with access to Palestinian centres via Israeli ports or checkpoints still subject to the vicissitudes of the security situation, foreign investment is distinctly limited.
"I do believe we are fast approaching those limits", Mr Fayyad told me in an interview in his office in Ramallah, alluding to the point where economic growth would stall without a political solution.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair who, in his role as Middle East peace envoy, has been painted by some as the midwife of the future Palestinian state is sanguine about how much further progress can be made without a diplomatic breakthrough:
"I think the next year will be pretty crucial to be frank," Mr Blair told me, adding that the Israelis have to see the creation of the Palestinian state as "a strategic objective for them [Israel] and for their security".
There are some painful ironies in what Mr Fayyad, aided by Mr Blair and the international community, has achieved in the West Bank.
The White House mantra that spreading democracy would bring peace in the Middle East actually helped trigger the schism between Gaza and the West Bank.
But now the Palestinian Authority is bringing improved security and economic conditions in the West Bank, it is actually behaving more like those old style Arab governments frowned upon by American neo-cons a few years ago.
Mr Fayyad's forces have arrested dozens of Islamic militants and his nominal boss, Mahmoud Abbas, declines to hold presidential or parliamentary elections despite his mandate having expired.
Need to heal rift with Hamas
So, the PA may have climbed a couple of rungs towards statehood, but further progress up that ladder is now conditioned not just by the long-term question of finding a productive way to negotiate with Israel but by the split with Gaza.
Israelis sometimes call the alternative government that governs that coastal territory "Hamas-istan".
With its policy of defiance towards Israel and close relationship with Iran, that Hamas alternative appeals to many Palestinians or Arabs more widely.
Now somehow there has to be reconciliation with the PA for the project of statehood to move further.
"There is only ever going to be one Palestinian state not two," explains Mr Blair on why this schism marks such a difficult challenge, "it's got to include Gaza and the West Bank together".
So the achievements of Mr Fayyad's government may have won the approval of people in Nablus or elsewhere, but the road to statehood is still daunting.