The Oslo Accords of 1993 meant that the West Bank was divided into a series of zones. The intention was to leave all control around the large cities in the hands of the new Palestinian Authority. These particular areas were given the name ‘Zone A’. What this means is that the Palestinian Authority is solely responsible for security there and can decide what happens on the land there; for example, using it for building houses on. This division into zones also means that the Palestinian controlled areas have become a series of small islands surrounded by areas under Israeli control. Thus there is no continuous land under Palestinian Authority control and, as such, the Israelis control the traffic between the main cities. So there are Israeli checkpoints that you have to pass through in order to get from Ramallah to Nablus, for example. Around
‘Zone A’ are the ‘Zone B’ areas. These are areas that are controlled by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In real terms this means that it’s impossible for Palestinians to build in these areas where Israel retains overriding authority for security. Supposedly only about 5% of the West Bank is actually under the control of the Palestinian Authority. However, this does not stop the Israelis raiding these areas whenever they feel like it. Finally, there are the Zone C areas that are fully under Israeli control.
Until now I had only really been going out from my apartment to the centre of Ramallah and so today I thought I’d have a look around the other side of the hill, moving away from the city. At first sight the centre of Ramallah seems to be far away from the conflict and the battles over land and territory and so I went on a hike out of the city to get an impression of what the situation is like there. Al Tireh is characterised by large pompous villas and apartment buildings and is clearly a wealthy part of the city. Just like the house I’m staying, most of the buildings are brand new and nothing has been held back in the building process. I took a few photos of some of the new houses that are often owned by people who, after the Oslo Accords, returned from the USA or Europe, or they are owned by people who are still living elsewhere in the wealthy areas of the world. Most of the city is characterised by new high class buildings but also by the numerous empty houses that are probably waiting for a tenant to move in or for their owner, who is still in exile, to return. The new houses are exclusive but rarely elegant. In fact, they are often quite the opposite.
I’d got as far as the last houses on the hill and could hear the sounds of saws and hammers as some of these houses were still being built. The roads were also newly laid down with four lanes and a flower bed running along the middle, and from this vantage point there was an incredible view over the valley towards Israel. The hilly landscape disappeared in the distance and I tried to see if I could catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea but I think it was just past another hill that was further out. Looking to the other side of the valley you can see a large Israeli military complex, and a bit further out still there were several settlements. You can recognise them because they usually settle on the highest points in the area and have tall water towers. A lot of the Israeli control of the West Bank is based on visual control and so the settlements usually tower over the surrounding landscape and look over the Arabic villages that lie further down the hillside. These settlements are, then, an important aspect of the occupation and they also function as military posts in enemy territory. From my vantage point, the new road went down into the valley but I couldn’t see where it finally led to and, as you shouldn’t tempt fate here in the West Bank, this made me turn around and head back. There also weren’t any more Palestinian flags on the lamp posts as there are otherwise throughout the city, so this was probably the border of ‘Zone A’.
I turned around and took a different route back on yet another large new road but after about 100 meters a Palestinian security guard with an AK67 came walking towards me. He stopped and asked me something in Arabic. His friend, who was dressed in full camouflage, followed shortly after him. They couldn’t speak a word of English but kept repeating the word ‘Israeli’ to me. I tried to explain to them that I was from Denmark and took out my passport in which the word Denmark is repeated in several languages. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t say it in Arabic and I silently cursed the authorities at home. In the end I got through to them and they understood ‘Dinamarka’ but I still didn’t know whether I was free to go or what was going on. As they had some intimidating weapons that I’m not used to being around, I waited patiently to see what they would do. They then asked me if I had a phone and I showed them my new Jawwal mobile phone, which they recognised. They then called their own mobiles on it and vice-versa and also looked over my contacts which I think at that moment listed only four people. Eventually they waved to me and said ‘come’ and we went to their hideout which had some plastic chairs in it and they offered me one. They also offered coffee while they continued checking through my phone. I tried to tell them that I could call Samar who would explain who I was after which they finally gave me the phone back and I called her. Samar spoke to them in Arabic and everyone started laughing, including me, but not quite as loudly as they were! Later it dawned on me that they’d just wanted to be welcoming and hang out a bit. Once it was clear to them that I wasn’t Israeli, there was no problem. Later I heard that only 500 meters away down the hill was an Israeli settlement and this isn’t something to joke about.
Then a small man came out of the house next to the little control post to water his plants, which was probably just an excuse to check out what was happening. We got into conversation through the hedge and fairly soon he invited me into his garden. His name was Jadz and his English was pretty good. I asked him about his large new house and he told me that his son, who was a lawyer in the USA, had given it to him. His son’s company had led one of the large lawsuits against the tobacco industry over there and he’d had about 1500 lawyers working under him. They’d won about 800 billion dollars and so the son was hardly short of money. Jadz had been a travelling tradesman for the German chemical company Bayer but now he’d retired to his place of birth. Ramallah had originally been Christian and he told me that he was a descendant of one of the seven clans who had settled here about 700 years ago. At this point he invited me into the house for coffee and cake. Jadz explained to me that ‘Zone A’ in Ramallah was about to be ‘filled up’ with lots of new houses and that increased demand for the land had driven the prices way up. His land was now worth millions although he had bought it for nothing. I’d earlier read a piece of research that showed that in certain areas of Ramallah land prices are way above those of Manhattan, which says something about the wealth enjoyed by the richest Palestinians (http://www.ynkb.dk/landvalue.shtml). The three refugee camps in Ramallah aren’t on the market as the land is owned by the UN, so refugees don’t enjoy the benefits of the rising land values. No surprise there. After several cups of coffee, I headed home and on the way back the two soldiers gave me a ‘low five’, which is the way friends greet each other here on the West Bank.