W. Bank Swimming Pools Help Palestinians Brave the Heat

DURA - Lifeguard Ahmed Rajoub jumps to his feet and whistles loudly. "Stop it right now," he shouts at a group of boys causing a ruckus.

"This pool is the pride of the West Bank," he says, still eyeing the boys. The clover-leaf-shaped pool, one of whose walls is adorned with the word "welcome" in Arabic, formed out of small stones, is not the only attraction at Al-Khahuf (the caves). "Come back in the evening, you can even see the sea from here," Rajoub says. The view from this small recreation complex in the village of Dura, near Hebron, is indeed breathtaking.

Al-Khahuf sits on a topographical saddle between two hills that slope westward toward Beit Govrin. The hills are covered with terraces of grape vines, olive orchards, figs and other fruit trees. This Tuscany in the West Bank couldn't seem more removed from the Israeli occupation or the Palestinian infighting.

"Swimming pools have become trendy in the West Bank," says Rajoub, 30. "It's because of the occupation. We used to be able to travel freely to the beach in Israel. Everybody from Hebron would go on Friday. But now we're not allowed. We had to find alternatives."

Nowadays, every city in the West Bank has a pool or a recreational complex: Bethlehem has one similar to Al-Khahuf, while Ramallah has more than 10. One of Jenin's swimming champs committed a suicide bombing at Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant in August 2001. Nablus has a pool reserved for women, and an Olympic pool. Another pool and recreation complex sits between Nablus and Tubas.

Al-Khahuf draws about 2,500 people on an average weekend day, Rajoub says. Abdullah Abu-Znayid, the owner's brother, gives us a tour of the small caves hewn into the mountainside. The first is for VIPs. "This is where important people come to drink coffee. Jibril Rajoub and Mustafa Barghouti have been here," he says.

Despite the heat, the women are fully clothed. "Arabs do not allow mixed swimming," the owner, Abd al-Karim, explains. Most of the women are sitting near the ferris wheel, looking longingly at the bathers. Al-Karim says he would soon be opening a pool for women, by popular demand.

Al Karim says people denounced him when he first opened the pool. "Even in the mosque, they were afraid I'd sell alcohol here. But after a few months, they saw there was no alcohol and no problems. Now, the Islamic Movement sends its campers here."

Entrance costs NIS 10. "I make a living. And because it's cheap, Arab Israelis come here too.

At the petting zoo, which has a camel, a pony and a giant snake, we meet Tamara, a young East Jerusalemite here for the first time.

"Israel is still better," she sniffs. "Can you compare this to Tel Aviv?"