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A few days in Ramallah

Jane Shallice reflects on a recent trip to the West Bank.

January 13, 2014
10 min read

Just before I left for a short visit to Ramallah the following conversation occurred.

‘Have you got your currency?’

‘Yes.’

‘What is it that is used in the Palestinian areas?’

‘Shekels.’

‘Shekels, but that is Israeli.’

‘So too are the Palestinian areas.’

And as I looked at the travel insurance website for the country I would be visiting, Palestine was not listed. I would be going to Israel. It reminded me of a talk that Marwan Bishara had given when he had just arrived from Paris where he was teaching about eight years ago. At the airport he had been asked his nationality and he had stated that he was a Palestinian. The woman looking through her list said ‘Panamanian?’ He shook his head and he reiterated he was a Palestinian.

‘Peruvian?’

‘No, Palestinian.’

She stared at him, ‘There is no such thing on my list!’

‘That,’ he said looking around the audience, ‘is the situation for the Palestinians – there is no such thing.’

We arrive at Ben Gurion airport which smelt like the eastern Mediterranean and then a taxi to Ramallah avoiding the Qalandia checkpoint by travelling along the Palestinian roads, a sort of parallel infrastructure to the Israeli highways, seen and yet not seen, it reminded me of China Mieville’s The City and the City.

Ramallah

Ramallah was twinned with Hounslow in 1988 and the twinning has been re-energised in the last couple of years. It is like a bubble; the administrative centre for the Palestinian Authority therefore with the seeming trappings of a state but in fact with no state. Buildings and offices which appear to be organising and administrating but all without a self generating budget, and with nothing in terms of a taxable base. All the income of the state is dependent on handouts. Ramallah is increasingly seen as the ‘capital’ of the Palestinian area, with thoughts of fighting for East Jerusalem as their capital diminishing as the Israeli settlements grow at an alarming rate overshadowing the old city of Al Quads.

The centre is a network of crammed streets, busy shops, small offices and a market where many young boys were hanging around, proud ‘owners’ of shopping trolleys which gave them employment to carry large and often precarious loads through the crowded streets at a very fast pace. The pavements are full of women and children and the traffic crawls along at a snail’s pace – there are few bicycles and an increasing numbers of cars – while remnants of the old fine Ottoman buildings lies less than half a mile away in the old city.

The woman looking after the Ramallah tourist information office told us that fewer than 10 people visit the office each day.

Women in the West Bankwomen

We met a woman who teaches Development Studies at Beir Zeit, and I was curious if there was any evidence today of that very strong vibrant Palestinian Women’s movement visible in the 60s and 70s. It was clear that the retreats and the defeats of the Palestinians over the last 40 years with Oslo, the defeats of the intifadas and the impact of the occupation had removed the framework of such politics and their organizing power which they once had. Particularly important had been the impact of the second intifada, which had centrally prioritized the armed struggle and which excluded women in a way that the first intifada had not. As a consequence conservatism, religion, paternalism and the family have become stronger. This together with the fact that in the last 15 years the opportunity for women to work has been dramatically reduced.

Today less than 16% of Palestinian women in the West Bank are in the labour market, the lowest percentage of women anywhere, mainly because the traditional areas where women find employment – agriculture and manufacturing – have largely disappeared. A comparable figure for the Arab world is 23% whilst the rest of the world has 51% participation. For many women who had been farming much of their market has been undercut by the entry of Israeli products into the Palestinian areas whilst the Palestinian infrastructure vital for selling products is radically under funded and undeveloped. Yet as in many countries there has been a greater length of time in education of girls and a higher proportion of women than men in higher education, consequently the arguments that laid the blame on women for not being educated and therefore not being employed is fully exposed.

The stark reality is that their lives are determined by the Israeli occupation and its strangulation of the economic life of the Palestinians, through the wall, land confiscations, closures and since 2000 the dramatic reduction in the numbers of Palestinians who can work in Israel.

A patchwork landscapepatchwork

Whilst the towns appear vibrant and busy with large numbers of people especially women and children on the streets and with new buildings springing up around the areas, the villages are experiencing new levels of deprivation.

People in villages have always been poor but now are experiencing deepening poverty which places an inexorable strain as they know the fatigue of steadily declining incomes whilst fearing that little will change in their lives for the good. Just travelling out of the villages is difficult – buses which drive between the towns only leave for their destinations when they are full and it is therefore only on rare occasions that they can pick up those waiting at the intervening stops.

It is starkly evident that the economy of the West Bank is a shell. In a state form subject to the instant and often inexplicable interventions by the IDF, who have the right to close and to seize areas, the West Bank is really a collection of patchwork areas, increasingly dominated by developments of settlements installed on the ridges and heights on Palestinian land. It is a place that survives only on aid, donations and the largesse of the Gulf States or of wealthy Palestinians now living in the US. Offices are announced to be funded by donor nations, NGOs are around working to the agenda of the donors and because resources are desperately needed, the Palestinians have to accept whatever priorities the external world determines.

As in all societies the disparities of wealth are dramatic. Not just between the towns and the poverty stricken villages scattered through the countryside, but within the towns the substantial houses have their hilltop locations with views and positions to display their wealth and power. Of course it is the Israeli settlements which most frequently dominate the landscape – overlooking every Palestinian village and town.

New Palestinian estates on the way to Nablus look like the more exotic Israeli settlements, many of these being owned by the bureaucrats, the members of the PA and wealthy American Palestinians. The edifices appear to have been dream houses drawn on a napkin at the table and then given to the builder to construct; the latest fashion being a sort of pagoda tiled roof over the whole structure.

Nablus

Nablus itself is today very accessible as the main checkpoint to its southern edge has been reduced and the bus on which we travelled sailed through with no scrutiny. It is a busy town with a crowded central area of shops, a fine market and newly built modern offices. As with all the towns we visited, it was very clean with a large number of street sweepers working assiduously.

Passing a men’s outfitters with all the models in the window wearing the Guy Fawkes masks. I darted in and asked if this was an identification with the protesters in Gezi Square, but the only responses were smiles and an enigmatic ‘indeed the masks come from Turkey!’

As with Ramallah there are a huge number of new buildings surging up the sides of the surrounding hills. They are large apartment blocks, many empty but which give the appearance of some measure of security – investors would not be building if there was concern that there would be an attack by the Israeli tanks or an explosion of Palestinian anger.

As ever youngsters were eager to talk. One eating lunch in a cafe with friends wanted to speak English and talked with intensity about her wish to visit Jerusalem, but she stated regretfully that she did not think she would be able to go there in her lifetime. ‘I would be able to go to London, if I were rich, but Jerusalem …’

Later we met with a Palestinian woman who had been involved in the establishment of a women’s cooperative in the late 1970s. They had set up an enterprise which made knickers from fine materials, sold at Sachs, Fifth Avenue and Harrods, while they produced a far cheaper version for Hebron. It had required connections – Salweh herself, a woman from the US and a man who had a workshop in NY, which was shipped to Ramallah and had a workshop in NY. There were fights with the Israelis about the labelling of the goods and they succeeded in establishing it as a West bank product from the Occupied Territories until the whole operation was so squeezed by the Israelis that it closed. On reflection she believed that small scale village-based groups and co-operatives could be established.

Signs of growth?

I wanted to know whether the amount of new building that was evident all around, signified confidence in the future, but no-one seemed to want to put it like that. Some argued that there had been a steep escalation of personal debts incurred because there had been an increase in the availability of bank loans. These were ‘guaranteed’ by either donor countries or by Gulf states, and as a result there had been cars and apartments being bought on credit, with all the consequential impacts of conservatism and being tied into a never ending cycle of debt. The question which was instantly raised was why are these loans are being released, and is this another way that the financial institutions are leaching the resources of the middle class and aspirant Palestinians.

Building is seen as a sign of growth in the economy yet in this case it is not a result of accumulated

Palestinian capital, but they are investments based on loans or fictitious capital dependent on securitization. But it is unclear from whom and why. It gives the appearance of a developing housing bubble, which leads one to suspect that it is going to soon crash. It would seem that at the present time buildings being erected have no use value as they are unfinished and without services, often remaining as empty shell- like structures. But can you have a commodity which has an exchange value having no current use value but which has use value in potential?

For the Palestinians, the currency of occupation is far more than the shekels. It is the radical distortions of their lives, the myths of autonomous control, an economic existence skewed, restricted and distorted by the Israeli state, lives determined by checkpoints and holdups, fees and military searches, applications to the Israelis for the right to build in Area C and the delays and refusals which follow, an evident display of the power of the Israelis spreading through Area C where settlements proliferate on all the prominent skylines, and the shackling of Palestinian hopes and aspirations.


Jane ShalliceJane Shallice is a writer and activist


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