Ramallah is not Palestine

By Sandy Toalan, Le Monde Diplomatique – 31 March 2010

Despite condemnation over Jerusalem and Gaza, Israel has boasted of improved conditions in parts of the West Bank. Yet Ramallah, with its coffee bars and restaurants, is far away from Area C, with its refugee camps, roadblocks, military patrols and harassment, where nothing much has changed

In Ramallah, on a sliver of land inside the occupied West Bank, it’s possible to imagine what Palestinian freedom might feel like. Major Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints are down or unmanned, allowing drivers who used to be stalled, fuming, to travel nearly unimpeded from Jericho, up the ancient hills to Ramallah, and on to Nablus in northern Palestine. Inside this fragment of a fragment of land, the economy is picking up, as shipments of soap, olive oil, vegetables, soft drinks and even local beer move smoothly to their West Bank destinations. Bloomberg has noticed that the area shows an annual growth rate of 7%.

Here, in the political and commercial centre of the West Bank, a relative sense of ease and prosperity has emerged as new shops and bars serve well-educated and discerning customers. “World-class vibrant beats in the evenings and fine-dining at all times,” reads the Facebook page for Orjuwan, a popular Ramallah lounge. “Preserving essential ingredients of traditional Mediterranean cuisine from Palestine and Italy, our classic dishes are reinvented to gourmet standard in a fine dining experience…”

Welcome to Liberty Enclave, where residents experience a taste of prosperity and rising quality of life in this small but significant part of Palestinian West Bank society. Unencumbered by scores of roadblocks, or by delays caused by the arbitrary decisions of teenaged soldiers, these Palestinians can now enjoy a modicum of freedom to move about and do business. The partial lifting of the West Bank occupation, helped partly by the US training and professionalisation of Palestinian security forces, allows the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to cite measurable improvements in the lives of some of his people – and gives Israel a rare chance to appear magnanimous despite the condemnation over the Gaza war and the Jerusalem settlements.

Yet the improved conditions in this part of the West Bank – known as Area A, a creation of the Oslo process in which Palestinians have been given civil autonomy – deepen the resentment of other Palestinians who remain locked down in Area C – where Israel retains full control. (Area C accounts for 60% of the West Bank.) There is also anger at the Palestinian leadership. This is not new. Nor is class-based intra-Palestinian fury. In 1994, Gazans who had sacrificed in the first intifada were furious when their “liberators” arrived from Tunis to govern from their villas and the back seats of their black sedans (1). Now the resentment is worsened by the disconnection between the enclaves of Israeli-controlled liberation and isolation, and few Palestinians bridge the gap.


“I feel like I have schizophrenia,” said Naela Khalil, a journalist who lives at weekends with her family in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, but works in the Ramallah office of the daily Al Ayyam. Khalil, who recently documented PA human rights abuses against Hamas activists in Palestinian jails, was sipping a latte at Café de la Paix, another addition to Ramallah’s comfortable café culture. “The biggest problems among my friends in Ramallah is how to lose weight,” she said. “Biggest problem at Balata camp is how to stay alive.” Khalil marvels at all the glass buildings in Ramallah, built with a naïve confidence that they will remain unshattered. “People in the camps don’t even build a second storey on their homes. Because they know what it’s like to lose their house in one black night.”

Anger boiled over during the early days of Israel’s war on Gaza at the end of 2008. “At New Year here in Ramallah, people were partying in restaurants and drinking, but in Gaza they were celebrating under Israeli bombing,” Khalil remembered. “Only 50 or 60 came to the demonstration. There were two security officers per demonstrator. So you feel very important! VIP! This kind of sarcasm is the last step before the anger comes.”

More demonstrations were organised at Ramallah’s Manara Square, and Khalil covered them. “Every time people went to the Manara for a demonstration, security forces prevented them. They beat them and threw tear gas. Prevented people from going to the checkpoints. We are normal people and they came to beat us. These things slowly add up.”

A shrugging indifference

In the farther reaches of Area C, the reaction is less anger at the PA, more indifference. In the South Hebron Hills, 30 miles away, yet light years from the “world-class vibrant beat” of Ramallah, reality is an urgent, inch-by-inch struggle with Israeli settlers and soldiers over land, and access to the hilly paths that connect villagers to their homes and schools.

“The settlers used to come with dogs – they would send the dogs out to attack us,” said Manar, a schoolgirl from the South Hebron Hills, which is firmly embedded in Area C. She is 13, but looks 10. Like many Palestinians in the area, Manar lives in a village of tents and cave dwellings in the South Hebron Hills. From there she walks two hours to her school. A report by Christian Peacemakers Teams, based in al-Tuwani village, documents many incidents in which settlers, often wearing hoods or masks, have stoned children, beaten them, and stolen their backpacks. (Stoning attacks have also been documented by videos taken by villagers in the area.) Besides the dogs, settlers have fired eggs at Manar with slingshots. Because of the attacks, the Israeli army is required to escort the Palestinian children, but “sometimes they don’t come on time” and Manar misses school for fear of the settlers. “Sometimes they have black hoods covering their faces. So it’s really scary.”

As in much of Area C, daily life for villagers is full of travel restrictions, housing demolitions and confiscations of land. Some now live full-time in their sheep camps, since they fear that abandoning them will result in permanent loss of their lands. “If they lose any of their land, they suffer – they need every bit of land to graze their flocks,” said Joshua Hough, an American activist walking toward the school. He lives part-time in al-Tuwani as part of Christian Peacemaker Teams. “The land is continuously being taken in little chunks. The amount of land Palestinians have available to them is becoming less and less every year.”

The school was three steel frames built on cement slabs, draped with canvas. Local leaders spoke through a megaphone, arguing for freedom of movement and access to education. After the speeches, schoolteachers began handing out free pencils. Manar and her fellow students quickly crowded around, reaching out their hands.

“Members of the Palestinian Authority hardly ever come here,” said Na’im al-Adarah, driving us back in a battered pickup which has served as a makeshift school bus. Once, he said, a man from the Palestinian ministry of local affairs came from Ramallah but refused to come in a PA vehicle. “So we took him from Ramallah in our cars, at our own expense.” The official was appalled at the conditions he witnessed. “He said this is the first time he knew that this land [within the West Bank] is ours. A minister like him is surprised that we have these areas? I asked him ‘how can a minister like you not know this? You’re the minister of local government!’ It was like he didn’t know what was happening in his own country.” Al-Adarah squinted at the broken road through a cracked windshield. “We’re forgotten, unfortunately.”

For these Palestinians, the semi-liberated enclave centred in Ramallah is part of another country.

“Ramallah is not Palestine,” said Muhammad Abdullah Ahmad Wahdan. “It’s 5%. But 95% of Palestine suffers.” We sat in the living room of his concrete block home in Qalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem. Just a few minutes away lay Ramallah, another country. Outside, Israel’s separation barrier loomed above the camp like a prison wall. There is talk that Israel will reroute the wall through the middle of the camp, and Wahdan says, given that this is Area C, the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be powerless to stop it. “This leadership has given us nothing,” he said. “No work, no homeland, no stability, no security.”

Benefits for the bourgeoisie

Wahdan long ago dismissed the dream that the PA could help him recover the lands of citrus and olives that his family were driven from during the creation of Israel six decades ago. Now, after losing a son to the struggle – the young man was 19, and his wife was pregnant; when a baby girl was born, the family called her Palestine – he is wary of any more sacrifice for the Palestinian leadership. As she served us refreshments, Wahdan’s wife said that these are the people who “put our kids under the cannon fire”.

Wahdan said: “This particular class of the bourgeoisie exploited the people who fought the struggle. We did this for their benefit. They were the ones who got something out of it.” Wahdan’s 15-year-old grandson, Anas, sitting under a large portrait of his martyred uncle, added: “They wanted us, with no weapons, to [make the] sacrifice. Their kids have cars and villas, they own phone companies. There’s no equality between someone like that and someone like me, who lives in a house that’s falling apart, and whose father may or may not have enough money to bring bread or have clothes.”

And if he and his friends should voice their displeasure? “We’ll be told, ‘Well, you’re just refugee camp kids’,” said Anas’s friend Munir. He wants to become an eye doctor. “There’s nothing to do here, maybe play games on the internet. There’s a military base next to me here, and the checkpoint crossing there, and the Israeli army comes in at night. And maybe if you go and play games at the internet place, you’re happy that you did something for the day.” Refugee-camp teenagers like these once fuelled the resistance to occupation. Not now, said Munir: “All that anger has been absorbed by depression.” Perhaps some day, that anger will again rises. But for now, said Anas: “People say ‘I’m exhausted, and rocks will not liberate me’.”

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