JERICHO, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday presided over a mass wedding of 218 couples in the parking lot of a five-star hotel, for the first time copying a social outreach tactic perfected by his Islamic militant rivals as he courted popular support.
With unemployment in double digits and the cost of living rising, couples unable to afford a traditional wedding jumped at the chance of the all-expenses-paid party. Abbas' office funded the event with more than $1 million, including $4,000 in startup money for each couple.
The brides wore colorful embroidered Palestinian robes and carried bouquets of white roses, while the grooms wore black suits, white shirts and red ties. The couples sat in rows of chairs flanking a central stage where Abbas delivered a speech, followed by wedding singers.
Some of the brides grumbled about missing out on their own special day in a white dress.
"Of course every bride dreams of having her own party, not a mass wedding," said 17-year-old Safaa Dawas from the Balata refugee camp, who finished beauty school but is unemployed. Her husband, 27-year-old Ali Farraj, works in an aluminum factory, but doesn't earn enough to make her dream of a traditional wedding come true.
Others said a group wedding now is preferable to waiting for years to get married.
According to local custom, the groom has to pay for all expenses, including the wedding party, the bridal gown and a gold dowry, as well as provide a place for the couple to live. At a minimum, a young man needs about $10,000 for a traditional wedding, usually attended by several hundred guests.
Many have to put off getting married because they can't afford it.
Economic times have been tough for years, largely due to the ongoing conflict with Israel. Unemployment stands at 19.1 percent in the West Bank and 32.5 percent in Gaza, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas since it seized the territory from Abbas in a violent takeover in 2007. The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in 1967.
Over the years, mass weddings have mainly been the domain of Hamas, the Gaza offshoot of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1987, Hamas quickly built a loyal base with its social outreach, including Hamas-run clinics, kindergartens and schools. By contrast, the Fatah movement headed by Abbas was seen as corrupt and removed from the needs of the people.
In the past three years, there have been 25 mass weddings in Gaza, including those organized by Hamas and its smaller rival Islamic Jihad. In the most recent Hamas-sponsored wedding six months ago, 240 couples each received about $2,000.
In his speech Tuesday, Abbas lashed out at Hamas, alleging the group had prevented a wedding party of several dozen Gaza couples that was to coincide with the one in the parking lot of Jericho's Intercontinental Hotel.
"Unfortunately, Hamas is insisting on dividing the people," Abbas told the audience. "Hamas today banned our boys and girls in Gaza from having their party together with us. We wanted to do it as an expression of national unity that they (Hamas) didn't want."
Abbas was elected president in 2005, but stayed on the job beyond the end of his term because the Hamas-Fatah split blocked new elections. Opinion polls suggest his popularity has held fairly steady, though his decision to resume peace talks with Israel last summer did not have broad backing.
Abbas spends much of his time at his Ramallah headquarters or abroad, for talks with foreign leaders, and it's fairly rare for him to mingle with ordinary Palestinians. At Tuesday's wedding party, he posed for pictures with the couples and embraced Mohammed Assaf, a hugely popular Palestinian singer who won last year's TV talent contest Arab Idol.
The couples signed their marriage contracts before Tuesday's celebration, but according to local custom are not allowed to live together until they've had a wedding party.
Mohammed Hamdan, 30, a member of the Palestinian security forces who lives in the Aqbat Jaber refugee camp across the street from the Intercontinental, said he wouldn't have been able to tie the knot without the group wedding.
"I have no money to cover the huge expenses of the wedding," he said, adding that he took out a bank loan to buy furniture for an apartment he built on top of his family's small house in the refugee camp.
Meanwhile, the head of the West Bank's Islamic Court warned that money troubles are contributing to a steady rise in the divorce rate. Sheik Yousef Ideis, whose court approves divorces, said more than 5,000 couples split in 2013, a rise of 4 percent from the year before. By comparison, some 3,330 couples divorced in 2000, with the annual number of marriages holding fairly steady.
Itaf Yousef, a women's rights activist, said poverty is the main reason for the rise in divorce.
She also accused politicians of exploiting young couples eager to get married. "I am against mass weddings because they turn such an intimate social occasion into a political stage, at the expense of the privacy of the people," she said.
Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.