Amid the shrubs you glimpse something black. You glimpse a rifle barrel. And you get it. Out your taxi window you notice smoke on your right, but it’s not the typical clearing of undergrowth burning in a distant field. It’s tear gas. In the middle of the white cloud there are 13-year olds with slings and keffiyehs. Slim. Fast.
No, this isn’t traffic, it’s clashes. But you are the only one who looks. Everyone else is in their car, headphones on, texting.
“Step away!” your driver shouts—not to a soldier though, to a kid. Palestinians honk. They are running out of patience. Their horns are saying, “Let’s go, yalla. It’s late.”
On a new map printed of Ramallah this traffic jam/ youth v. army standoff is pinged among the destinations tourists must see. In actuality the site is the Wall, precisely where it buttresses Qalandia checkpoint. “Disheartening,” the caption says, “yet fascinating,” because that’s what Ramallah is. The first photo I took here, my very first day—it was 2007 then—was of a dusty child drinking rain water from a tank. Now that tank has been replaced by a swimming pool in the Mövenpick Hotel, $200 per night, Ramallah’s four-star accommodations. Now this temporary capital city of Palestine is all cafés and restaurants everywhere. It’s all shops, lights, flowers, asphalt sidewalks pumping to the music of Justin Bieber from car stereos until dawn.
When Salam Fayyad was appointed prime minister amid the ruins of the Second Intifada the same year I arrived, it was decided that negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel no longer made sense. The only way out of the occupation was to build a state, so the West Bank leadership said. Literally brick by brick, build it, so that the new constructions would become the high-rises of an eventual state recognized by the United Nations. Along with the development boom everyone bought a house, a car, and a washing machine. Everyone now owns a store, even if it’s only open for a few months before closing and someone else opens the next clothing boutique. In Ramallah business has replaced politics and you can live without feeling the military occupation that lurks on all sides.
Indeed the glitz is deceptive. We are still 15 minutes away from Jerusalem, but by car it takes two or there hours depending on the mood of the soldiers, and only if you hold a permit of course. Because in between Ramallah and Jerusalem, Qalandia checkpoint still hulks. There is still the Wall.
At Qalandia the Israelis wear this fluorescent bib as if they are highway maintenance workers. One of them kindly picks up a coin off the ground dropped from the bag of an old lady. The number 18 bus that crosses between the two territories is no longer a shabby minivan. It too has been upgraded since the end of the Intifada to a bus with air-conditioning. It doesn’t leave from a rutty area anymore, rather it departs from a proper station with lanes painted on the street. Inside the bus, you pick up a wi-fi network on your smart phone. The signpost says: Bus Stop Qalandia.
Because that’s how Ramallah is. Normal.
But then you enter any shop, any grocery store and everything is made in Israel. There is nothing Palestinian here, not even a single orange. Then you walk around al-Masyoun, the affluent neighborhood of banks, and glass and stone office buildings. They are 15 stories high with a doormen in a uniform. Then suddenly you are in one of Ramallah’s refugee camps, al-Amari, where 10,000 people live without water and electricity—these worn out homes tucked amid the sticky alleys, these barefoot, threadbare children, with missing teeth, these goats amid the trash rotting under the sun. You stop to take a few notes and flies cover your hand. There are often casualties here. Israeli bullets. The manhunt for vaguely defined “terrorists” is almost daily. Shops don’t close anymore due to bereavement, they way they used to shutter during the second Intifada. The portraits of martyrs have been replaced by posters of blonde kids and American corn flakes.
Because that’s how Palestine is, today. Contradictory. Complex. And lost.
The occupation actually hasn’t changed. It hasn’t softened. Quite to the contrary. If power—as Hannah Arendt said—is the opposite of violence, here Israeli rule is stronger than ever. It doesn’t need guns anymore. It’s been internalized. In Qalandia there are brawls regularly, although not to tear down gates and gratings, but while forming an orderly line.
The world’s attention, understandably, is all for Gaza. All for the blood, the rubble, the dead, the despair. Gaza has been under siege for eight years. There is no longer even clean water, only sea water and salt water. To maintain the blockade Israel employs weapons that are much more advanced than stockpiled munitions, jets and tanks. Rather it has an arsenal of laws and procedures.
“There are less checkpoints than in the past, it’s true, and now anyway searches and inspections are minimal,” Shir Hever explained, an economist who studies the West Bank because of its odd prices. Hever found the cost of living is 30% higher in the occupied Palestinian territory than Israel, even though per capita income is 20% lower. The reason, transportation and administrative burdens. Palestinians endure longer routes on highways because they must bypass settlements when getting place to place. “It’s because of invisible barriers,” Hever wrote, “The real aim is unpredictability. To make movement unpredictable, something you can’t plan, not to prevent it—so that at a glance everything looks normal. But then you can be stopped, you can be arrested at any time under any pretext. And there is a push for Palestinians to stay within their own city. It’s not only Gaza separated from the West Bank, but Ramallah separated from Nablus, and from Hebron and Jenin, from Jerusalem. Because you never know if you will finally arrive or not, and when. And so in the end you give up. You stay at home.”
Within your own little world
Weapons can be new, brand new. Drones can roam the sky, but the strategy is old. It’s always the same: it’s divide and conquer.
In order for the Palestinians to gradually achieve self-government, the Oslo Accords split the West Bank in area A, B, and C. Even more, the geography is further fragmented by settlements into around 120 disconnected Palestinian islands. Only Area A is under the full control of the Palestinian Authority, roughly 18% of the West Bank. Another 61% falls under Area C, within the full control of Israel, and it is within this zone where the struggle is really taking place. In rural areas the occupation is always already. Oslo changed nothing for the Palestinians in these pastoral and remote regions.
“Israel aims to take the land of the West Bank, not the land of Gaza,” Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti said, “It could annex the West Bank, or more exactly, the cities of the West Bank, without jeopardizing its Jewish majority. It could keep Ramallah, Nablus, the same as it is now keeps Haifa. In a few years, we, the Palestinians, will be the settlers of an Israeli West Bank.”
Jamal Jouma is 53 years old and he is one of the masterminds of the kind of resistance born from the ashes, literally, 5,000 dead during the Second Intifada. Palestinians like Jouma were tired of both leading political parties, Hamas and Fatah. He took power from their hands and set up an activist network of popular committees. Since then every Friday the West Bank has been dotted with demonstrations against the Wall. Non-violent demonstrations.
“And for a while it’s been working. But in the end, we only achieved to tear down a small slice of the Wall, to move another slice a hundred meters away. Nothing more. The Wall is still standing, with its route, which is twice the length of the border with Israel,” he Jourma said.
“It’s somehow a theater performance where everybody plays his own role,” Jouma admitted. At noon, 20 or 30 kids march toward the Wall amid the cameras of 20 or 30 foreign activists. Ten minutes later tear gas canisters start to rain. Kids and activists withdraw a few feet, then the cycle repeats. Eventually the Israelis get tired. They turn to rubber bullets or live ammo. At this point the demonstration is over. “But it’s not a surrender, actually. It’s not because of a lack of interest. It’s because everything happens in a void of leadership. And without a strategy, nobody is willing to take risks. To get killed for nothing?” Jouma said.
Anyways, back in placid Ramallah it’s the usual summer. Fun and music and barbecues on the rooftops. The only thing electric here is the advertising screens. A digital billboard switches between a promotion for a sports car, Nivea face cream, and a destitute child. “Give a dollar for Gaza,” it reads. You buy the Nivea.
A version of this report was originally published in Italian on July 5, 2015 by Il Fatto Quotidiano.