iAffairs’ Middle East Editor, Liam Bedard, is currently in Ramallah, Palestine working for American Friends of the Middle East…
While the world’s attention has been drawn to Gaza, the West Bank has simmered on the sidelines. Israel’s latest offensive took the air out of tensions that seemed ready to explode little over a month ago. The brutal murder of three teenaged settlers and the revenge killing of a Palestinian boy that led to the crisis in Gaza seem like ancient history.
It’s clear from my time here so far that the West Bank is not on the brink of a third intifada. True, there have been protests – some of the largest in years – over the war in Gaza. There have been daily killings by the IDF. But people here continue to find a balance between two contradictory impulses: the innate desire to resist the occupation, and the necessity of calm, commerce, and the continuation of everyday life.
Entering the West Bank from Jordan was hectic: the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge (the only border crossing between Palestine and Jordan) was choked with families returning from Eid vacation. Navigating security took three hours (not bad considering some horror stories I’ve heard). We received a red sticker with a number on our passports that we later learned singled us out for added scrutiny.
There was no hint of animosity between the Israeli border guards and Palestinians on their way home. Their interactions seemed completely routine. Granted, one could not avoid the sensation of being herded like cattle. There were few non-Arabs in the long, snaking lines; we were the subject of curious, if friendly, stares. As we entered Palestine we were told “welcome to Israel.”
We were not the only foreigners at Allenby that day. As we left processing, we glimpsed Quartet Representative and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair surrounded by a fawning entourage in the parking lot. We snapped a picture but a member of his security detail asked us to delete the photo. He got into a black sedan and sped away.
It’s a 40 minute ride via Jericho to Ramallah through mountainous, sun-beaten terrain. We passed imposing Israeli observation towers and settlements. The group-taxi dropped us ignominiously in downtown Ramallah. With the help of locals we found our hostel, perched above a thriving vegetable market with a splendid view of West Jerusalem on the horizon.
From this sure base we have launched forays north and south; working at the Jalazone refugee camp during the day, with excursions to Tulkarem, Nablus, and Bethlehem. Settlements dot the hills that enclose winding, treacherous roads. Amish-looking settlers wait in bus stops with armed guards, fiddling with their phones and looking uncomfortable in the heat.
Everywhere there are reminders of the occupation. Military jeeps patrol the highways. Observation towers monitor traffic. Unannounced roadblocks block our way to the refugee camp. The ‘wall’ looms intrusively over residential neighbourhoods. Machine-gun wielding Israeli teenagers monitor traffic at the checkpoints. The settlements are ubiquitous.
Killings by the IDF happen every other day. At one demonstration at the foot of Psagot (a hilltop settlement also within sight of our hostel), the Jewish-only enclosure was fired upon by a masked gunman. A Palestinian protestor was shot and killed in retaliation. This prompted a massive public funeral and further demonstrations.
Within the bubble of Ramallah, however, you might not even know this is occupied territory. People here are welcoming unlike any I have ever met. They love Canadians and seem unaware of Canadian foreign policy. We dropped by the Canadian Representative Office – a large, fenced-off, stone building – late one night. It was guarded by a single Kalashnikov wielding PA security officer who bade us good evening. We heard that the office had been the subject of protests the previous week over Canadian support for Israel. But that was the first and only time we heard of any kind of discontent with Canada.
Despite periods of calm, the bustle in the streets, the reassuring prayers from the mosque, people here are consumed with the suffering of Gaza. Our hostel is in a conservative neighbourhood and Hamas supporters are a relatively frequent appearance. By chance we stumbled upon a pro-Hamas demonstration led by a truck-mounted platform of Hamas partisans chanting slogans into a megaphone to the enthusiastic response of the crowd. A sizeable contingent of female supporters followed. Upsettingly, children were among the protestors, waving inflatable rockets atop their parents’ shoulders. However, the demonstrators were peaceful and seemed not to be bothered in the slightest by the presence of Westerners.
That Hamas is able to stage such demonstrations in the heart of Fateh territory is telling. Israel’s campaign against Gaza was intended (directly or indirectly) to undermine the newly announced Palestinian unity government, but it has had the inverse effect: heightening national unity rather than diminishing it.
Hamas supporters remain a minority in the West Bank, but this aura of unity prevails. Fateh and other mainstream parties here continue to preach non-violent resistance, but are deeply critical of an Israeli assault which has so far claimed nearly 2,000 lives, including over 500 children. According to the United Nations, civilians account for the vast majority of deaths.
But despite the chaos in Gaza and the humiliations of the occupation, people here are persevering with their routines, much as they have done since 1967. Last night, with my head out of the window of our 5th floor hostel in Ramallah, I could hear sounds of jubilation echoing across the city. Fireworks illuminating the dusk. Clanging and shouting emerging from the market below us. Men pouring out of the mosque across the street with their voices crying in joy. I was told today that there were a slew of marriages throughout Ramallah. I was also told that over the course of the conflict in Gaza, 5,000 children were born.
The news broke last night that the Palestinian Delegation to Cairo peace talks has accepted a 72-hour ceasefire. Whether or not it holds, people will eventually find a way to pick up the pieces of their lives from the rubble. With their unfailing patience, Palestinians will persevere in the pursuit of their happiness, even if freedom remains temporarily out of reach.
Featured Photo by momo.