Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ramallah is the new Dubai

I was invited on Sunday to a picnic by Yazid. Emily, Reem and a whole load of other people would also be there. Yazid is an architect and teaches in the architecture department of Birzeit University. Emily is a Palestinian/American visual artist and Reem is an art historian who works at the newly opened art academy in Ramallah. We met at 10am by CafĂ© Pronto and we passed the first few hours together by getting food for the picnic. We went to the fruit and veg shop and bought watermelons, peaches, tomatoes, lemons and a whole variety of other things. Then we went to one of the street stalls and bought freshly made humus and falafel and we also bought pickled cucumbers and various kinds of mixed salads too. Soon we’d pretty much filled up a whole trunk with food which I would guess would have been enough for about forty people even though there were only ten of us. The idea though was that we were going to eat throughout the whole day. ‘Food is wine’ as Yazid put it when we passed by a friend’s place on the way to pick up a grill. People here love food and they love to spend time eating. We drove out of Ramallah and headed north to a little village called Burham. This place was supposed to be one of the only regions in the Ramallah area where there’s any forest-like growth. Geographically, we had driven north to the border of Zone B that overlooks Zone C. This was on the border of one of the Israeli-controlled corridors that separates the urban areas. We could see a settlement on the hilltop and the settler road that connects the settlements north of Ramallah to Israel. The options for picnic areas and excursions into nature are so limited around Ramallah that the people in the village had decided to close off this one forest to visitors as the forest just couldn’t cope any longer. A local boy from the village came over and told us where we could stay instead and we found a place in an olive grove that was shady and we began to prepare the food. Ahmed, Sandy and Alessandro turned up with their little children and, to my surprise, they had also brought food. Some marinated chicken and lamb shish for the grill, so we weren’t short of anything.

Sandi and Alessandro are both architects and run a project called Decolonizing Architecture which has its offices in Bethlehem. I think Ahmed also teaches Political Theory at the Birzeit University. When there is food, friends and lots of time, there are also a lot of discussions and I’m very impressed with the locals’ ability to constantly discuss the ‘situation’. So today’s big discussion was on the future development of the city of Ramallah. Yazid had already started the discussion in the car when we’d passed a large sign on an empty lot that said ‘Bought by Arab Investment Bank’. He sang a little self-made song: ‘Ramallah is the new Dubai’, and told us that the West Bank has recently been opened for investment by the rich Gulf States. Many aspects of the Oslo Accords concern economic control over the flows of investment and goods into the occupied territories. Within the last few years, Israel and the PA (Palestinian Authority) have, in collaboration with the World Bank and global investors, attempted to open the occupied territories to international investment. Thus a very disturbing mix of military occupation and free trade zone was beginning to take shape.

Much of the discussion under the olive tree was about how the economic and cultural weight is being pushed from East Jerusalem to Ramallah. This process was happening on a variety of different fronts. On the political front, East Jerusalem had already been annexed by Israel in the 1980s and been brought into the municipality of Jerusalem. In this way the Israelis had disconnected East Jerusalem from the West Bank as an area of legal administration. The Israeli-controlled municipality doesn’t do much to support and develop life for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Therefore the Palestinian life of the city is starting to dry out there. Daily life has become too expensive and difficult and there is less and less to do there economically as well as culturally. Palestinians go to Ramallah when they want to have a good time and party. The Wall has isolated and closed Jerusalem off from its hinterland on the West Bank and the Palestinians in the West Bank no longer have access to the holy city. Palestinians in East Jerusalem cannot expand their homes and their neighbourhoods are not developed at the same rate as the Israelis. All the while Israeli settlements are continuously expanding, lately by a 1000 new homes in Pisgat Zeev and Har Homa (, for example. The role of Ramallah therefore is also an important part of this plan which in the end would make Ramallah the main city in Palestine. Traditionally Jerusalem had been the capital of Palestine but this role is fading more and more.

When it came to this slow pressure on the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, there were no limits to the stories the picnic guests could tell of how Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs had had their identification withdrawn in various situations. For example, during departure at the airport for long study trips abroad, the guards would simply take the cards and comment that ‘this is no longer needed now that you’re leaving anyway’. There were currently several ongoing legal cases regarding these events in which Palestinians were trying to get their Jerusalem ID back. The guests also spoke about how, in the middle of the night, at Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, there would be control visits to check whether people actually lived at these addresses. The police would check whether the bed was warm and whether the toothbrush was still wet. This discussion made me sweat as I’d written on the blog about Ismail’s attitude in regard to the Israeli demands for residency permits here. As I was aware of the problematic security situation, I’d changed most names that I referred to on the blog and the people at the picnic figured this was good enough.

Yazid was very preoccupied by this combination of military control and market interests which stimulates life in some areas of the West Bank but makes life unbearable in others with the purpose of displacing people. This was how Palestinians were being moved from Jerusalem to Ramallah. In regard to this process, the discussion turned to questioning what the PA was doing that was in any way beneficial to the Palestinian people. According to the Oslo Accords, the PA is the administrative organisation that should govern both civil and security related institutions in the areas under Palestinian control. However, it seemed pretty unclear which interests the PA in fact represented. According to the opinions shared at the picnic, the PA was entirely implicated in Israel’s, and also the rest of the world’s plans, of dividing the areas. As it was said, the security forces don’t even protect the Palestinian people. The picnic agreed that if the PA was interested in representing the Palestinian people it should dismantle itself.

In fact, Palestine has for many years been one of the very few areas in the world where people have lived without a state and where the cities have governed themselves in a kind of association of city states (but always under the control of various colonial powers, of course). The discussion ended with a certain agreement that the next intifada would not be against Israel but the PA. While the picnic kept steadily moving and following the sun and shade around the tree we were sitting under, the picnickers some how reached the conclusion that there isn’t a need for a one-state or two-state solution but rather a no-state solution.

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