August 20, 2008

Beth Reports, Part 4: Ramallah

[This is the fourth in series of first-hand reports from Palestine and Israel, written by FotM's friend Beth. The first three are here, here and here.]

We walk to the East Jerusalem bus terminal and get the local Arab minibus to Ramallah, making sure to carry our non-Israeli passports to show at the checkpoint. (Israelis, by law, are not allowed in Ramallah.) After an uneventful 40 minute drive, we come to the outskirts of this city of about 50,000 people where, one after another, new apartment buildings are under construction. It appears to be a booming metropolis, with hundreds of new apartments soon to be available, all of white or pinkish white stone, pleasing to the eye.

Yet unemployment is high and getting higher as people move there from villages where the apartheid wall separates them from their land and they can no longer make an adequate living. Palestinians from the educated middle class from the smaller cities and towns are also moving there because it is easier to move around, do research, meet with colleagues, to simply enjoy life. According to the World Fact Book put out by the CIA, West Bank unemployment in 2006 was 18.6%. I’m certain it’s higher now.

We met up with Z, a 23 year-old Jewish-American graduate student in Middle East Studies who is living there while studying Arabic at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. The previous day he had gone to Bilin, where Palestinians have combined civil disobedience with legal petitions to fight Israeli policies. An Israeli court decision said that the wall should be moved back, which would allow farmers access to their land, but this has not been done.

Every Friday, for more than three years, there have been non-violent protests against the wall. That Friday, the Israeli military dispersed the protesters with toilet water, that is, water from the toilet. I’ve heard the same story from three people, though one said it was chicken, not human, feces in the spray of water.

At a café on the top floor of a huge shopping center overlooking the main square where we go for a glass of juice, we are the only women. As tourists, we are welcomed. Luckily, I take pictures of the central square before being told not to. Watching from above, I was struck that there were no traffic lights or stop signs despite streets converging on the center of town filled with cars and trucks. Somehow, the traffic managed to flow as local people went about their routine. The souk, much more tightly packed with people and stalls than the one in Jerusalem, had an abundance of produce and clothing. Women shopped, almost all of them with their hair covered, many in brightly colored hijabs, children trailing behind.

The center of political activism in Ramallah is at the university, where young men and women participate in many different political groups, demonstrations and other activities. As recently as ten years ago, Z has been told, almost none of the women at the university wore the hijab; now at least half do. Z tells us that there is also a thriving night life which he is a part of, with young men and women coming together for various cultural activities – art, music, dance and poetry.

The Israeli army can come into town whenever they want. The police from the Palestinian Authority do not have much authority but they are in the street carrying rifles. There was recently a demonstration in the City Center which was dispersed by Palestinian Authority police in riot gear.

As it has been every day, it is 90 degrees or more. As we walk around downtown Ramallah, we try to stay on the shadier side of the street. We look for actual shade, maybe a park, but there is none to be found. We see trees up a hill but when we get there realize that they are behind the walls of a police station.

Everywhere, young boys approached the three of us, especially Z, to buy chewing gum, “one shekel, one shekel.” The currency in Ramallah, and throughout the territories. is the Israeli shekel. Many of the items we see for sale on the street--hardware, toys, clothing--are brought from Israel to be sold there. As we pull away from four 8 to 10 year old boys who surround us, and keep walking, I see a large Palestinian flag and a skeleton key (symbol of the Palestinian people’s desire to return to the homes they fled or were forced out of in 1948), painted on a wall, but in general, I am surprised to find little graffiti and only a few Palestinian flags atop buildings.

For us, leaving Ramallah is no big deal, but for the Palestinians on our minivan, it is a different story. My friend R writes:

Minivan from Ramallah back to Jerusalem--entering the van I hardly notice anyone--the seats are deep and I go sit by the window, hiding; Beth, next to me, snaps pictures. At the Kalandia checkpoint the van stops, young guys and older men go off and young women too--all with hijabs--I look around me and see an elderly man, a woman with a baby, and to my surprise, since I hadn't noticed before, some Western-looking people sitting in the back, and behind me, two young women who could be Palestinians but clearly have foreign passports--segregation in action--from passengers in a van we were 'profiled', categorized, privileged and co-opted. Next time we ought to step out and walk through the prison-like "terminal'"/checkpoint.
The next day, we go to the Dead Sea to relax. Before 1967, and when I was there right after the war, this trip would have taken three to four hours, traveling west from Jerusalem, then south to Beersheva, then around the southern land of the (prior to June, 1967) Jordanian-controlled West Bank, back east and north up the edge of the Dead Sea.

But Israel has built a highway, Route 1, straight across the West Bank, from Jerusalem to just south of Jericho; from there another highway travels south along the Dead Sea. An hour after we leave Jerusalem’s central bus station, we are at the public beach at Ein Gedi. It’s the polar opposite of travel for Palestinians living in the West Bank, which in the same period has devolved from simple and direct hour-long trips into convoluted day-long projects.

The Dead Sea is 1,378 ft below sea level; its shores are the lowest point on the surface of the Earth on dry land and it is the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. Because of the lake’s buoyancy, you lie back in the water and float for as long as you want, which for me was more than an hour. Or you just stand there in the water, perhaps talking with people around you. I got to talking with a young man from Burma. He called it Myanmar. His government sent him and eleven other young men to study agriculture and veterinary science at the university in Netanya. Despite the recent cyclone and political upheaval he said that everything is going well in his country.

I met another woman, from Mauritius, a nanny for the children of a well-to-do Parisian Jewish family on vacation (thousands of French Jews own vacation homes in Israel). The nanny knew about the occupation, and when I talked about home demolitions and checkpoints, she wanted to know more. She said that the family she works for, like those Burmese kids, preferred not to pay attention to what was really going on. Turns out keeping one’s head in the stand is not exclusively an American trait--or, to put it another way, where you stand depends on where you sit.

Taking a break from relaxing in the hot water under the hot sun, I came out of the water and found R sitting at a bench in the shade with two Israeli men from Tel Aviv, traders in spices from Iran and Turkey. They offered us home-made falafel and a type of delicious peanut I had never seen before. I asked how many people there are in Israel. One of them said: about 5 million. With the Arabs? I asked. No, just Jews, he said. To him, the Palestinians, even those living within the borders of the state of Israel, were not worth counting.
In reality, according to the CIA Fact Book , there are 7,112,359 people in Israel. This count includes about 187,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, about 20,000 in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and 177,000 in East Jerusalem (7/08 est). Of these, 76.4% are Jewish and 23.6% are non-Jewish (16% Muslim, 1.7% Arab Christian, l.4% other Christian, 1.6% Druze and 3.9% unspecified).

This Israeli blind spot to the existence of The Other in their midst is perhaps the major obstacle to the achievement of peace with justice in the area.

[The fifth and last of Beth's reports can be read here.]


Anonymous said...

this was a really helpful post. i'm visiting family in ramallah in october and have gotten all kinds of information but nothing as thorough and detailed. i've just been concerned traveling through the check points some times. and i also wanted to know about things happening in ramallah like poetry readings, night life, cafes and educational events. this was great. it had all the information i could hope for. thank you.

Anonymous said...

oh and if you have any other information, feel free to email me at thanks! :)