West Bank car enthusiasts start their engines

One of the last cities remaining under the Israeli blockade hosts a rare showing of race cars – some of which predate the second intifada.

Nasser Ishtayeh/AP
A Palestinian car drove in the street during the Palestine National Car Race in Nablus on Friday, July 4.
Joshua Mitnick
Jamal Tuffaha is a local favorite in the Nablus Wataniyeh Mobile Car Race held in Nablus. Most of the cars that raced down Muntasah street in Nablus's first-ever road rally were refurbished old compact sedans.

Over the years of the Palestinian uprising, the center of this city routinely echoed with the grind of Israeli tanks and spurts of gunfire from local militias. Last Friday, it roared with the sounds of souped-up race car engines and the shouts of thousands of spectators who lined Muntasah Street for Nablus's first-ever road rally.

Over the loudspeakers, an announcer boomed: "Gentlemen, to your cars!"

In a city known as a hotbed for militants and as a hub for car thieves, it almost didn't matter who won the first-place trophy at the Nablus Wataniyeh Mobile Car Race. The fact that it took place at all marked a milestone in restoring a sense of normalcy.

"Maybe it will help our younger generation change their mind and take more of an interest in sports and culture. We need a change here," says Sami Rabah as he lifts his two wide-eyed boys up to see the race over the crowd.

"They've never seen anything like this before, and I think they're a little astonished," Mr. Rabah says. "[In Nablus] we can't do anything and we can't go anywhere."

Nablus remains one of the last cities in the West Bank under the Israeli army's blockade. A rare exception on its ban on passage for motor vehicles was made so about 35 car racers could compete.

Friday's competition was far from Formula One racing or stock car road rallies. The track, about a football field in length, consists of closely positioned obstacles and 360-degree turns that emphasized driving technique over speed.

And with little disposable income after eight years of war and economic closures, most of the race cars were refurbished old compact sedans. The 49 contestants navigated the course one by one.

Driving an electric blue 1983 BMW M-Series with a "Baby on Board" sign on the rear windshield, Nablus's favorite son Jamal Tuffaha admitted to a case of pre-race butterflies.

"I'm nervous, because I want to have a strong performance in front of my kids," he says.

Keeping the crowds from spilling into the street were several dozen officers from the local police and national security forces. Public security has improved as militant groups bowed to efforts by the Palestinian Authority to reestablish law and order. Some spectators say that holding such an event would have been impossible as recently as four months ago.

Wearing a bright red race suit with white checkered stitching was Tuffaha's chief rival, Wassim Razzu, the 2007 champion.

Mr. Razzu explained that car racing is popular among Palestinians even though there have been no race tracks to speak of in any West Bank cities. With Israel blocking its residents from traveling to the beach and traditionalism frowning on discos, racing is one of the few recreational releases for Palestinians.

"We are lucky because we can close a public road in Nablus," Razzu says. "I have some Israeli friends who are jealous, because where in Israel can you close a city road for a car race?"

Still, there was a hint of politics in the air with tribute songs to the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigades, a militia linked with the Fatah Party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But as the checkered flag waved, the songs seemed more like background music.

"Racing is good because people are having fun and no one is making trouble. Look at people's faces," says Geio Risheh, a friend of a race team member. "For eight years, we haven't seen anything like this. This is a sign of peace. Here, inside Nablus, there's no occupation. We need to end the intifada and have a little fun."

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