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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.

A Palestinian car drove in the street during the Palestine National Car Race in Nablus on Friday, July 4.

Nasser Ishtayeh/AP

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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.

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