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Report from Ramallah: How Palestine is today

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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 Now that tank has been replaced by a swimming pool in the Mövenpick Hotel, $200 per night, Ramallah’s four-star accommodations.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.

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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.

Francesca Borri
About Francesca Borri

Francesca Borri is an Italian freelance journalist who has covered Syria since May 2012 where she reported from Aleppo, and she embedded with the Islamic State in 2013. She has published three books, on Kosovo, on Israel/Palestine, and on Syria.

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27 Responses

  1. bintbiba
    July 9, 2015, 1:23 pm

    Signorina/ Signora Francesca Borri writes very well !

    Ramallah pathetic? opulant? tragic? decadent? …. all of these things.

    To me, Heartbreaking …..

  2. Citizen
    July 9, 2015, 1:26 pm

    Geez. I don’t know how to tell you what it does to my brain and heart to read this, while Hillary promises Haim all the blood & treasure of the US to support it. Every female in my extended family will vote 4 Hillary. They know 0 about this conflict, & don’t care to know.

    • lysias
      July 9, 2015, 2:25 pm

      They don’t even have to vote for Hillary to vote for a woman. Jill Stein is running again.

    • Kay24
      July 10, 2015, 11:54 am

      Here is an interesting article from Haaretz on that subject. So she hints she will not support a two state solution. Our politicians have no shame. They will say anything to win, and make pacts with the devil.

      “Why Hillary Clinton is moving left on every issue except Israel
      In a letter to hawkish donor Haim Saban, she hints she may oppose a two-state resolution at the UN.”

      • ckg
        July 10, 2015, 12:18 pm

        The Haaretz piece was penned by Beinart. Bill Clinton wrote the cover jacket blurb to Beinart’s Crisis of Zionism. I wonder if Beinart has some inside knowledge.

      • RoHa
        July 11, 2015, 12:52 am

        Why is justice for Palestians regarded as a left wing position?

      • echinococcus
        July 11, 2015, 2:04 am

        Good catch, RoHa. That’s another typical result of the so-called two-party monopoly on power in the US. As you very probably know, the two “parties” have no essential disagreement ever on things that count while all the debate is concentrated on the so-called cultural differences, i.e. frivolous matters of sexual politics, animal rights, Southern flags and the like. So “right” and “left” have in our American English lost all connection to questions of capital, means of production, labor etc.; they designate the trendy (mostly “Democratic”) and countertrendy (mostly “Republican”) sides in these nonsense cultural differences, which will be the only hotly debated election issues.
        Palestine is among the serious issues covered by the general consensus of “both” sides and won’t be discussed for elections. The fact that most now see it instinctively as “left” means it is breaking the consciousness barrier and provoking trendy and less-trendy attitudes. A good sign that people have started hearing about it.

      • Sibiriak
        July 11, 2015, 5:58 am

        RoHa: Why is justice for Palestians regarded as a left wing position?

        Historically, anti-colonialism has been closely associated with the Left.

  3. JLewisDickerson
    July 9, 2015, 2:48 pm

    RE: “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… 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.”

    MY COMMENT: This “unpredictability” (i.e., “maintained uncertainty”*) is designed to induce a feeling of “permanent temporariness” in the Palestinians; thereby helping to maintain their acquiescence** to the occupation.

    * FROM ALISTAIR CROOKE, London Review of Books, 03/03/11:

    [EXCERPTS] . . . It was [Ariel] Sharon who pioneered the philosophy of ‘maintained uncertainty’ that repeatedly extended and then limited the space in which Palestinians could operate by means of an unpredictable combination of changing and selectively enforced regulations, and the dissection of space by settlements, roads Palestinians were not allowed to use and continually shifting borders. All of this was intended to induce in the Palestinians a sense of permanent temporariness. . .
    . . . It suits Israel to have a ‘state’ without borders so that it can keep negotiating about borders, and count on the resulting uncertainty to maintain acquiescence. . .

    SOURCE –

    ** FROM WIKIPEDIA [Learned helplessness]:

    [EXCERPT] Learned helplessness is the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.[1] Organisms which have been ineffective and less sensitive in determining the consequences of their behavior are defined as having acquired learned helplessness.[2]
    The American psychologist Martin Seligman’s foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the conditioning of dogs led to outcomes that opposed the predictions of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, then a leading psychological theory.[3][4]

    In the learned helplessness experiment an animal is repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it cannot escape.
    Eventually the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.
    Finally, when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness prevents any action. The only coping mechanism the animal uses is to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus. . .

    SOURCE –

    • lysias
      July 9, 2015, 2:58 pm

      Learned helplessness is the mental state that the U.S. torture program was supposed to induce in the tortured detainees.

      • JLewisDickerson
        July 10, 2015, 5:29 pm

        CORRECT, SEE: “Architects of C.I.A. Interrogation Drew on Psychology to Induce ‘Helplessness’”, by Benedict Carey, The New York Times, 10 December 2014 –

        P.S. FROM WIKIPEDIA (Learned helplessness):


        Emergence in interrogation

        In CIA interrogation manuals learned helplessness is characterized as “apathy” which may result from prolonged use of coercive techniques which result in a “debility-dependency-dread” state in the subject, “If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him.”[40][41]

    • MHughes976
      July 10, 2015, 10:54 am

      I think that the ultimate objective is not to make people give up and stay at home but give up and leave for another country.

      • JLewisDickerson
        July 11, 2015, 8:36 am

        Yes, the ultimate objective is make the Palestinians leave for other countries where they will not be confined to (i.e., trapped in) their homes!

    • SQ Debris
      SQ Debris
      July 10, 2015, 1:53 pm

      Learned helplessness is a good descriptor of the American electorate. Obama fueled it with his empty promises for change. People worked for his campaign, filled with hope, then got the same old policies for their trouble.

      Jouma’s comment about the lack of Palestinian leadership is spot on. The old underground Unified National Leadership was amazingly effective until it was subsumed by “the Tunisisans” aka Arafat and company. Now Abbas, of that same cadre, does everything in his unelected power to prevent a resurgence of grass roots leadership and activism. Disgusting.

    • Bornajoo
      July 11, 2015, 5:01 am

      “Why is justice for Palestians regarded as a left wing position?” (RoHa)

      this is a great question RoHa! When I asked my cousin in Israel a few years ago what he thought of Gideon Levy he said something like ‘he’s left of the very left, and when you arrive at the point, he is to the left of that’

      Normally we associate “the left” as being those who advocate for a less capitalist, more socialist and fairer society. But that’s not what Gideon Levy or other “leftists” (as they are lovingly referred to in Israel) write about. They write about the terrible treatment of the Palestinian people by Israel and they are branded as “leftists”

      but isn’t this the sign of a fascist society? Franco branded everyone opposed to his fascist rule as communists.

      Many thanks for this really great article Francesca Borri

      • RoHa
        July 11, 2015, 5:20 am

        I haven’t counted, but it seems to me that at least as many British Tories as Labourites support the Palestinians. (As far as I can tell, no Australian politician has the guts.)

        Of course, compared with American politicians, British Tories are just a shade to the right of Kim Il Sung.

      • Bornajoo
        July 11, 2015, 5:43 am

        “I haven’t counted, but it seems to me that at least as many British Tories as Labourites support the Palestinians. (As far as I can tell, no Australian politician has the guts.)”

        Yes, if we go by the non binding vote on Palestinian statehood last year in Parliament it did seem that way. But the problem is that it’s not the MP’s that really count!

        Alan Duncan’s “settlements” speech was a great speech but it just fizzled away. He’s no longer an MP and the Tory leaders will continue to back the American position until/if ever that position changes. (we’re really just a poor little vassal state of the American Empire but we do our best to pretend we’re not!)

      • a blah chick
        a blah chick
        July 11, 2015, 7:07 am

        It seems to me that anti-racism has traditional been a position of the left, as well as criticism of the government.

        Now, in Israel if you take a consistent stand against racism you will find yourself, more often than not, in conflict with the powers that be. You’ll also more than likely be a lefty.

      • straightline
        July 11, 2015, 8:42 am

        @RoHa and @Bornajoo

        Labour MPs were under a one-line whip for that vote – indicating a direction of party policy but with no requirement to attend or vote. Conservative backbenchers were allowed a free vote (no indication of policy) but members of the (Conservative) government were not allowed to vote.

        Conservative Friends of Israel claims 80% of Conservative MPs as members. I don’t have a figure for Labour Friends of Israel but a cursory glance at their website suggests significantly less.

        In Australia the only politician who has been willing recently even to be slightly critical of Australia’s undying support for Israeli actions is Bob Carr. Others that have criticised Israel in the past have been worked over by the toecutters and come back into line.

  4. DaBakr
    July 9, 2015, 7:21 pm

    My take (obviously as a Zionist) is this is one of the most accurate portrayals of life in Israel and the WB. After the wreckage of Oslo both peoples have pulled back, withdrawn and isolated into the cocoons of materialism, capitalism and veblen goods. And of course there is the inequality of the occupation and the separation fence/wall to emphasize the point.

    Author nails quite a few points that outsiders may not get from the skewed press portrayals and the focus on the Hamas controlled GZ. Just a few good ones:

    –…”everyone else is in their car, headphones on and texting”

    –It’s all shops, lights, flowers, asphalt sidewalks pumping to the music of Justin Bieber from car stereos until dawn. –

    –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,

    –Because that’s how Palestine is, today. Contradictory. Complex. And lost. – Just as is-in many ways Israel. And other nations in a world transitioning from changes the likes that humans haven’t experienced for almost 2000 yrs. Its not just the ME

    –Oslo changed nothing for the Palestinians in these pastoral and remote regions. And this was predicted by many realists in Likud and other more conservative parties when Oslo was forced down the two peoples throats. Neither was truly ready. Israel-always ready to become giddy with joy at prospect of an Arab people actually being their ‘friends’. The Palestinians always suspecting some Jewish ruse. No surprises there. But there is no denying that the Ramallah of today -with its wealth and consumerism is a result of Oslo.

    –“It’s somehow a theater performance where everybody plays his own role,” Jouma admitted. – yes, a theater of the absurd with no sign of become any less so for a while.

    While not denying anything that the Palestinians claim was their tragedy, their Nakbah-it is hard after reading an article like this to take the hysterical comparisons now that Israel is ‘genocidal’ and the most brutal of sadistic oppressors. IAs the author observed- it is much more like a theater of absurdity where everybody knows their role.

    Meanwhile-the apologists and appeasers of the Hamas {Iran/Hezbollah/Fatah too} have completely skirted over the fact they are an extremely oppressive, religiously intolerant, misogynist, queer-hating fanatically violent religious extremist group. Unfortunately-when IS or ISIL came around they made dumb or numb folks believe something like, “well hey, hamas isn;t chopping heads so maybe they aren’t so bad after all, duh” [even Israeli strategists have adopted some of this as policy]

    -many think this growth-unequal as it may be-is the key to the future of a negotiated settlement to the 60 year i/p conflict. Palestinians already have too much to lose by any conflagration and within the next 4-5 years will have in more that they would not likely risk. The upper class as well as the burgeoning middle class will simple not tolerate the angry ‘refugees’ from tearing down whats been built.

    when Israel is no longer portrayed as evil incarnate, and the Palestinians and Arabs get over their deeply rooted culture of ‘honour’ and even more so the more right wing Palestinians who believe in ‘honour’ at ANY cost-even utter destruction and death’ there will be even more revolutionary compromises.

    enjoyed this writer. I expect many here will think she painted a far far too rosy a picture of WB life but there is no denying [for those who have been there] that this is how Ramallah and the other major centers are in WB.

    • WH
      July 10, 2015, 3:22 am

      There’s a thorough and fascinating treatment of this bubble in Ali Abunimah’s book from last year. He explains how it was artificially inflated through cash injections from Qatar and other Arab sponsors, and only survives because many people are massively in debt without achieving actual prosperity through business, or else can’t keep up with the gentrification, leading to swanky upmarket apartment blocks being very sparsely inhabited. It’s a false paradise on life support, the lipstick on the pig of the occupation. As a Zionist, you would like to use this as proof that the occupation ain’t so bad, but given the illusory nature of the economic stability here and the fact that the full harshness of oppression is evident everywhere around it, that’s a doomed enterprise.

      • talknic
        July 10, 2015, 4:16 am

        Did someone say lipstick?

      • can of worms
        can of worms
        July 10, 2015, 5:37 am

        @WH, +1.

        However, the article’s claim is absurd that, as per Hannah Arendt, the neoliberal turn of the Israeli occupation “doesn’t need guns anymore,” as if Ramallah represents an “opposite of violence”.

        Not to be forgotten is that in Ramallah the glass baubles and beads of neoliberalism are never enough by themselves; alongside them is the brutal US-trained, CIA-funded clampdown on any resistance to PA collaboration.

        Palestinians in the WB and Al Quds are in the US-Israeli grip. Therefore Palestinian activism has got at some point to work on the segregated status quo inside. If I know liberal Israelis, the call for desegregation is a finger twisting that will antagonize liberal israelis.

        It’s the aggressor’s baby finger.

    • diasp0ra
      July 10, 2015, 6:46 am

      You seriously live on a different planet. There is no point in even attempting to address this mess.

  5. RoHa
    July 10, 2015, 1:14 am

    “there will be even more revolutionary compromises.”

    Here are some to start with.

    1. Israeli government makes the following declaration.
    “O.K. The “Jewish State” idea was a crock. From now on, everything from the southern tip of Gaza to the border of Lebanon, and from the Jordan River to the sea (but not the Golan, because that is Syria) will be a single, unified, state, and everyone in it will be equal citizens with equal rights, regardless of sex, religion, ancestry, first language, or shoe size. We’ll figure out a name later*. But we would like to keep a version of the Law of Return just in case thing get a bit sticky for foreign Jews.”

    2. Israeli government makes the following declaration.
    ” The Zionist idea of taking over the land and driving out the natives was wrong. Sorry about that.”

    3. Israeli government makes the following declaration.
    “From now on, we’ll all work together to put the fanatics back in their boxes and work for a decent life for everyone here.”

    I’m pretty sure that these would meet with an enthusiastic response from the Palestinians.

    Actually, the Israeli government could do that right now. Any good reason why it shouldn’t?

    (*RoHa would like “The Socialist People’s Republic of the Holy Land”.)

    • bintbiba
      July 10, 2015, 5:40 am

      ” Holy” ” I don’t see anything Holy there.
      It has been un-holyfied a million times over and some, thank you !!!

      “The Socialist People’s Republic of the Holy Land”.)
      RoHa’s take on things always sounds good. (Jesus might approve of that one !!)

    • CigarGod
      July 10, 2015, 8:57 am

      So, I guess the first step in the plan, is to put opium in the water supply.

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