Wide-eyed college kids flood Ramallah, determined to change the world in a month

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Pamela, an American journalist who used to live in the West Bank and lately returned there, sent the following report in an email to friends from Ramallah. We are not using her last name because she fears difficulties at the border.

After leaving Haifa, I headed for Nablus. It's only about 60 miles from
Haifa, but because I had to travel all the way down to Jerusalem and
then back up to Nablus due to the Wall (alternatively, I could have
taken a settler bus into the settlement of Ariel in the middle of the
northern West Bank and then walked to a Palestinian road and taken a
cab from there, but I didn't feel like dealing with settlers), the trip
was more than three times longer than it should have been and took five

As my bus from Ramallah to Nablus passed settlement areas in the West
Bank, I noticed that a poster has been put up showing President Obama
wearing an Arafat-style keffiya. I couldn't read the Hebrew (and I
personally thought the President looked dashing in the black-and-white
scarf), but the implications were clear: The American president was an
Arab-lover, betraying the Jewish race with his insistence on enforcing
anti-discrimination laws.

Why does this sound familiar? Ask Alabama ca. 1961.

Note: Not all Israelis, much less all Jews, feel this way. But this is
what we're up against when it comes to the settlers in the West Bank.
So many of them are living in Lala-Land, and all too many are willing
to defend their fantasies with violence.

But here's the amazing part — the Huwara checkpoint south of Nablus,
the one I had been turned away from so many times and had to hike over
the mountains to get into Nablus, the one that turned Nablus into a
virtual prison camp, the one where so many horrific abuses had taken
place, the human cattle chute of so much dread and lore — it was gone!

Not gone exactly… Israeli soldiers were still there. But they weren't
stopping anyone. They were just watching. The infrastructure of the
checkpoint is still in place, and it can be shut down again at any
time. But for now, buses and cars passed by in minutes instead of hours
without being forced to get out and be checked and harassed and, often
as not, detained or turned back (or worse) on arbitrary grounds. In
fact, our bus drove straight from the center of Ramallah to the center
of Nablus without being stopped at a single checkpoint! It was bizarre,
but nice.

When I got into town and asked about the news, I found that the raids
into Nablus's Old City, which before were nightly and often deadly
occurrences, have slowed significantly. Like in Ramallah, business in
Nablus was taking off at a much faster clip than when I was here last.
The situation is still dire, and settlers have stepped up their attacks
on Palestinian farmers (beating them, burning or cutting down their
trees and crops, etc.) in the wake of Obama's calls to halt settlement
expansion. But when you've spent nearly a decade with an elephant
sitting on your face, it's hard not to feel relief when suddenly it's a
slightly smaller elephant.

There are many theories about why some major checkpoints have been
opened. (No one here listens to official news reports of why things are
done, because these are almost always PC BS.) Some say it's because
Netanyahu is trying to use this relatively easy concession to cut down
on pressure for him to halt settlement expansion. Others say that
Netanyahu is pushing for "economic peace," which means Palestinians
will get certain areas that Israel is willing to "give up" but without
the full rights of statehood such as control over their borders and
airspace, and with much of their land annexed to settlements. Easing up
and letting the economy get a little better is a way to keep the
Palestinian population quiet while he tries to sell them a glorified
Indian reservation (minus any rights of citizenship in Israel, but with
'citizenship' in a dummy state ultimately controlled by Israel) — a
plan that has no chance of working. Palestinians may be quiet at the
moment, but they're not stupid.

Either way, for the moment it's a stunning and welcome development.
Nablus is now, as it should be, an easy 1.5-hour, ten-shekel ($2.50)
jaunt from Ramallah by bus, less in a car, which is good for Ramallah
and amazing for the Nablusis, who've been shut up in their town for so

It's a beautiful place to be trapped in, though, as collective prisons
go. Built in a long valley between two high hills, it's one of the most
unique and beautiful cities in the Middle East. Its Old City, largely
intact and thoroughly lived in, is not only stunning, it's virtually
untouched by foreign tourists.

I was there to visit a Canadian friend whom I'd met six years earlier
in Jayyous village during my very first visit to the West Bank. He runs
a prominent humanitarian NGO (non-governmental organization) in Nablus
with tens of Palestinian and international employees and volunteers who
teach English, art, nursing, and other subjects in several locations
around Nablus and engage in other awareness-raising and
civil-society-building projects. …

[One] evening, sitting on the veranda of the volunteers' house
with its little herb and squash garden and looking out over the city,
unseen F-16 fighter jets were doing loud maneuvers over the city. We
had to pause our conversation every time the decibel level got too high
for us to be able to hear each other. A young Icelandic volunteer
yelled over the roar, "Why are they doing this?"

My Canadian friend and I looked at each other. She was probably looking
for a rational or strategic reason. Why the sonic booms over Gaza? Why
did soldiers make a Palestinian play his violin at Huwara checkpoint
and jeer at him in 2005? Why did a female Israeli soldier force a
Palestinian woman to drink cleaning fluid at a checkpoint? Why do so
many children get shot in the head by Israeli snipers in Gaza? Why
suicide bombings? We could have been there all night trying to answer
her question. I'm writing a book that tries to explain. I gave her a
snide and abbreviated answer that doesn't bear printing here.

After that, I headed back to Ramallah. Two things I forgot about
Ramallah in the summer: It's hot and crowded. But the invasion of
foreigners isn't as bizarre as I thought at first — this happens
almost every summer, although it's a bit over-the-top at the moment.
Now that the violence has gone down (and the global economy has, too),
the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) seem to have exploded like a
pinata from Europe. There are also a lot of college kids breezing in to
learn a mite of Arabic over the summer break or demonstrate against the
Wall. More power to 'em, but they sure do fill up the place like
tourists in New York, wide-eyed, aghast, and sure they can change the
world in a month. We old-timers remember our first time here, of
course, and can't and shouldn't judge. Circle of life, I suppose. And
who knows, maybe one of them will go on and shake things up somehow….

The heat wave also broke, to the point that it's almost chilly at night
and I have to close the door to my room to keep out the breeze. On
Saturday I finally found some cool, quiet places to work, set up my new
apartment in a more homey way, bought some fruits and vegetables from
the market in town, got to know my (very busy) roommates better, and
got to work on the book again. Finally I feel like I have arrived.

I've noticed also that the dress code in Ramallah has relaxed. You can
see girls wearing almost-sleeveless shirts and capri pants that show
off their calves (in addition to long pants so tight you would be
forgiven for mistaking them for bare skin if not for the color, which
has always been de rigeur), and men freely wear athletic shorts walking
down the streets. The Muntaza Baladia Ramallah (Ramallah City Hall
Park) has been spruced up, its fountains spraying water high in the air
instead of sitting there like dusty shipwrecks, and there's a bouncy
castle with a ball pit along with the playground for kids and tables
set up under shady trees where people can order food, drinks, and

I've always thought of Ramallah as a nearly-ideal blend of East and
West, with the fantastic and welcoming hospitality and culture of
Palestine, breezy parks, wind-swept Biblical hillsides, small shops and
spice and vegetable markets mixed with virtually anything a Westerner
could want, from lattes, Nutella, and Chinese food to hip hop and
classical concerts. But lately it seems to have tilted a bit too far to
the West.

The crowding in the cafes has turned the scene into a seller's market,
which means prices are higher, space scarcer, and waiters snootier.
Some places have even instated a $10 cover charge for Thursday and
Saturday nights. It's upsetting the balance at DJ'ed dance parties of
the relatively rich folks with foreign NGO salaries and the rest of us
— students, activists, volunteers, and artists. But they have to limit
the clientele somehow, and this is an easy and lucrative way to do it.
I've certainly been eliminated, but I'm not much into the big going out
nights anyway — I prefer the intimacy of the off-nights — so it all
works out…

Incidentally, it's also possible that the lessening of (some)
checkpoints (others have intensified, and the vast majority, more than
600 including unmanned but impassable road blocks, are still there) is
a concession not to the Palestinians but to the Palestinian Authority
(PA) so that they can make more investments and skim off the top and
therefore have less of an incentive to form a unity government with
Hamas that might actually represent the Palestinian people in peace

Palestinians are disgusted by the Palestinian Authority these days.
It's not that they love Hamas — they're getting more fed up with Hamas
by the day as well. But the PA has become little more than a fig leaf
and security sub-contractor for the occupation, helping Israel round up
Hamas members and other dissidents and caving into every Israeli demand
without asking for anything tangible in return. (They make requests now
and then, but Israel ignores them.) There is essentially no high-level
push-back to the occupation other than Obama's right now.

But as for organized resistance coming from the Territories, it's been
pretty well neutered for the moment other than the frequent non-violent
protests against home demolitions and the Wall that the Israeli army
counters with extreme violence — such as shooting tear gas, rubber
bullets, and live bullets at unarmed protesters, killing seven in the
past year and grievously wounding many, including an American named
Tristan Anderson whose head was split open by a high-velocity tear gas
canister a few months ago — and the international press ignores.

But as a friend said the other day, people were about this demoralized
just before the First Intifada erupted in 1987. If nothing moves in a
good way in the next couple of years, times may be ripe for Round
Three. Hopefully some important lessons have been learned from the
first two Intifadas….Right now people seem to be in wait-and-see mode.

Maybe Obama will man up, stop the settlements, and engage Hamas in
talks for a unity government that includes Hamas and Fatah under
reasonable terms. Maybe all the millions of little ways the truth has
to chip away at the edifice of lies surrounding Israel (blogs from
Palestine, writers, filmmakers, travelers, activists, and even a few
political leaders and pundits who call for a more even-handed approach)
will start to bear fruit in a more systematic way, or the press will
continue to speak a little more honestly, nudging public opinion toward
a major policy shift.

It doesn't hurt that the Israeli right wing are shooting themselves in
the foot in a major way, sounding more absolutist and racist as the
days go by. The Israeli Housing Minister recently said out in the open
that the spread of Arab populations in Israel to Jewish areas had to be
stopped. Projecting much? As if it's Arabs who are colonizing Jewish
land! As if it's kosher in 2009 to say, "This race of people is
undesirable, and we should segregate them." These Israeli right-wingers
are something else. As a friend of mine said, "Do they not hear what
they are saying?"

So maybe, in the end, simple common sense and decency will prevail
where titanic clashes between Israel's PR machine and Palestinian
resistance have merely muddied the waters over the years.

Either way, even now it's not all doom and gloom. One of the most
important thing I've learned here, vis-a-vis my happiness, is to try to
think positively and look for the good even in very bad times. It's
always there, even though there's also plenty to be cynical about. I've
found that too much cynicism is not only unpleasant, it's often a
self-fulfilling prophecy.

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