Saturday, June 16, 2012

The pulse of Palestine: Dispatch from Ramallah and elsewhere

Last weekend, I spent a day and a half in various parts of the West Bank. Rather than write it up as a conventional travel piece, I thought I’d profile three people I met during my stay, with extracts from conversations we had, and then end with a description of Ramallah and some general concluding remarks. [Note: For my account of a previous trip to Jerusalem, see here.]


Muhammad was the first person I spoke with at any length. We happened to be sitting next to each other on the public taxi (‘service’) from Jericho to Ramallah – a ride of about half an hour that passes countless settlements and some of the most famous sections of the West Bank wall. It also transports one from the arid landscape of the eastern border strip to the relative greenery of the rest of the country.

Inta min hon?” is how he begins our conversation. Are you from here? The question is so ridiculous, given how I look, that in retrospect I realize he was finding a diplomatic way of asking if I was Israeli. I tell him in Arabic that No, I am in fact a British tourist. He smiles and seems to relax. “Ah, British – welcome!” he replies in English. I ask where he’s from (Jenin) and from there we proceed to chat about Jerusalem, the Wall, and the occupation in general.

“There are three kinds of Palestinians: those who can go to Jerusalem any time; those who can go only with special permission; and those who can never go. In fact, there’s a fourth kind – those from Gaza, who can’t even leave there. I’m the second kind. Usually we only get the permission on religious holidays, if there’s been no violence lately. But even then, they don’t allow men between the ages of 18 and 35. They’re the youth, they’re most likely to, uh, do something.”

He pauses and smiles after those two words. “You can sneak in, you know. There are guys who do it, with ladders or whatever. And usually, you don’t sneak in unless you’re going to do something! But even if they catch you, they just kick your ass and send you back. It’s no big deal.

West Bank wall, somewhere between Jericho and Ramallah

“The wall is like a snake,” he says when it first comes into view – ugly, and rather smaller and feebler than I’d expected. “It snakes from village to village, because they want to take a bit from every one along the way.” After a pause, he adds with a laugh, “They’re stupid; they’re caging themselves in. We don’t care!” 

Arafat's and Marwan Barghouti's faces on the Wall


Rawda Khouriya is the co-owner and manager of my hotel for the night: the Khouriya Family Guesthouse, a stunning stone villa converted into a bed & breakfast in the village of Jifna, about fifteen minutes north of Ramallah. The Khouriyas are a Christian Palestinian family originally from Taybeh, which readers may know as the hometown of Palestine’s very own Taybeh Beer. Everything about the house reminds me of a Lebanese Christian home, from the ubiquitous pictures of Mary to the bottles of Johnnie Walker Black to the view from the balcony, which could easily be Marjayoun (and, indeed, is only 200km south of it). 

View from the Khouriyas' home
The Khouriyas' villa

We talked a great deal over the course of my stay, about Lebanon as well as Palestine (“The Lebanese,” she said with a gush of admiration. “They really know how to live!” Yes, and how to kill, too, I replied, perhaps unfairly). At a glance, life in Jifna looks wonderful. Even the nearby Jalazun camp for refugees of the 1948 war is heaven on earth compared to the dumps that Palestinians have to live in here in Lebanon. But on closer inspection, the comforts are illusory, even for a well-off family like the Khouriyas.

“Please, when you shower, be quick,” urges Rawda. “Water is very limited here, and we haven’t been able to buy any for two weeks. It’s going to cut off any day now.” She points out the black cartons of water, bought from Israel, that are placed on the roofs of every house in the village. “You won’t see these in the settlements,” she adds with a snort. 

Water cartons on the roofs of Jifna homes
As indeed I did not. And speaking of which, Jifna lies on the outskirts of a certain Beit El, a religious Zionist settlement which was in the news at the time for having been declared partially illegal by the Israeli High Court (a decision that Prime Minister Netanyahu was “not happy” about, but which would ultimately “strengthen the settlement movement” when the homes were moved to another, “legal” part of the same complex). Proximity to a settlement adds numerous difficulties to everyday life, including sudden road closures, harassment, and violence. “Last week [the settlers] stoned four passing cars,” says Rawda. “We don’t dare drive past at night anymore. And if anyone approaches on foot, they shoot.” 

Beit El settlement, near Jifna

I ask her about Hamas; specifically whether as a Christian Palestinian she has conflicting feelings about a strong party that is nevertheless Islamist. “We don’t really think as Christians or as Muslims. Everybody is so sick of the Palestinian Authority; their corruption, their weakness. So people voted for Hamas – yes, even Christians – because we thought they were different, that they had integrity. But now, it looks like they’re all the same.”

And I ask her that clichéd, but necessary question: what’s the solution?

“64 years is enough. We can’t take anymore. Khalas [enough], you take Haifa, take the beach, take everything that’s nice, but leave us this. We don’t need a new settlement appearing every month. Let us live in our part, let us move around, don’t make us drive for hours when it should take twenty minutes. You can have your land, we can have ours, and we can visit each other. But let us share it as equals, not with one above the other.”


Jan is not someone I expected to meet in the West Bank. A Dutchman in his fifties or perhaps early sixties, he is not a journalist, nor an activist, nor really a political person of any kind. He is, in fact, a stamp collector. His dream is to own all of the 82 varieties of Palestinian stamps that have been issued since 1994. Within minutes of us meeting he is pulling out entire sheets of them, each bearing a slight variation on the classic Arafat portrait. This is apparently a business. “You know how much these are worth? $600,” he smiles. “I’m holding $600 in my hands. And this is nothing!”

Over arguileh at the Jifna village club that night (Jan is also staying at the Khouriyas’), I learn a bit more about why Jan is really in Palestine. It transpires that he once lived for three years in Israel, during the 1970s. “I’m not a Jew,” he says (not that I asked or would have minded), “but I was married to an Israeli girl at the time.

“I was always being told by Israelis of the urgent need to kick all the Arabs out, how the only good Arab was a dead Arab, and so on. This was the norm. It converted me, to put it bluntly, from being pro- to anti-Israel.”

He complains of the overwhelmingly prevalent pro-Israel bias back in Holland (which he credits to the still-seeping scars of the Nazi occupation). “When I tell friends I’m going to Palestine, they become hysterical. ‘Don’t you know how dangerous it is? They’ll stab you, they’ll rob you, they’re terrorists for God’s sake!’ All I can do is laugh. I’ve never felt safer or more welcome than I do here in Jifna.” Indeed, as we sit outdoors among twenty or so locals watching the Euro championship, the only conceivable source of anxiety is the verbosity of the commentator. (Rawda, too, had complained with great bitterness of the tired and stupid “terrorist” line, which belongs in the same intellectual dustbin as the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)

There is a charming sort of innocence to Jan, which emboldens him to do things few others would. In Hebron, he says, he approached the sealed Jewish quarter (or “clean zone”, in the settlers’ parlance) with an Arab friend. “Can we go in?” he asked the soldier in Hebrew. “You can, but he can’t.”

“Doesn’t it make you feel strange,” Jan then asked, “that in front of you are two human beings, and you’re telling one that he can come in and the other that he can’t?” 

“Such is life,” was the soldier’s reply, though Jan insists he detected a glimmer of unease. “At the end of the day, it’s his job, what else could he do? But I’m convinced I made him think a little.”

Before calling it a night, I ask Jan too what the solution is. “Nothing that can be done overnight. But in the long run, I’d say what’s needed above all is the education of women. Educated women will raise their sons not to be extremists, not to continue the endless cycle of revenge. It’s actually an idea I read about in ‘I Shall Not Hate’, the memoir of a Palestinian doctor whose three daughters were killed by Israeli tank shells. It was the cleverest idea that I’d heard, personally. But it will take generations.”


There’s an energy in Ramallah quite unlike that of any city I’ve seen. With its winsome stone buildings, built around cobbled churches and mosques in the hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in other circumstances it might have just been a picturesque escape from the crowds of the Old City. Things, however, worked out rather differently, with the result that Ramallah today is a city galvanized by politics. There isn’t a square inch of al-Manara, the city centre, that doesn’t host a poster, a flag, a sticker or graffiti. Parts of Beirut are like this, but Beirut is a city of internal disagreement; of fragmentation and factionalisation. In Ramallah, there is that rare, spiriting feeling of single-minded purpose. 

al-Manara, Ramallah city centre

Tribute to Vittorio Arrigoni, Italian activist killed by Islamists in Gaza

Posters protesting administrative detentions of Palestinians in Israeli jails

And that purpose – much as I detest the word and all its abuse and misuse around the Arab world – can only be described as resistance. Not the lugubrious, murderous, religion-soaked pseudo-resistance of a Bin Laden or a Khomeini. On the walls of Ramallah there is colour, there is humour, there is a celebration rather than a negation of humanity. Like Beirut, Ramallah is a city of both Christians and Muslims, but unlike Beirut, the posters in Ramallah don’t distinguish between Christian and Muslim slogans and heroes. “Ramallah does not know creeds and factions,” wrote the poet Mourid Barghouti in ‘I Saw Ramallah’. I snorted when I read it – living in Lebanon will do that to you – but now I believe I was wrong to do so. 

Barghouti’s equivalence

I could write more: about the Wall, about Bir Zeit, about driving to the Green Line and the settlements every fifteen minutes along the way. But as I said, this is not a travel piece, so I’ll close instead with the following.

In I Saw Ramallah, Barghouti makes a seemingly straightforward observation as he prepares to enter his country of birth for the first time in thirty years. “There is no topological difference between this Jordanian land that I stand on and that Palestinian land on the other side of the bridge.”

Those of us fortunate enough to have been able to verify this, and to have descended into the Jordan Valley from both the eastern and western directions, will agree that the two sides are indeed nearly mirror images of one another. Anyone who has stared from Jordan across those agricultural plains, or the Dead Sea, at the peaks of Palestine on the horizon knows well enough what the peaks of Jordan look like when viewed from the other side.

It was this juxtaposition, or equivalence, of Barghouti’s that flashed to my mind as I crossed the King Hussein Bridge from Jordan myself, and saw all over again the unfolding of the apparatus of occupation. In particular, it was the sight of a young, pale blonde girl ordering a veiled Palestinian woman to queue that brought it on. Never before was the utter, radical abnormality of the Zionist project so plain to me. Consider, I thought, how Lebanese women look, how Syrian women look, how Jordanian women look. Consider how Palestinian women look. Now look again at that blonde hair, that white skin. Can there really be a dispute as to which one is the native around here?

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