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My journey to Ramallah

By Avi Davis
web posted November 18, 2002

Well, OK, I'll admit it. There are probably more attractive destinations to spend a vacation than Ramallah. This Arab town, surrounded by craggy, treeless hills in the Judean mountain range has an image of a place in ferment, seething with resentments, bottled up behind roadblocks and trapped in an endless cycle of attack and reprisal. The Ramallah of popular imagination is, of course, a very sinister place. One of the most horrifying episodes in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict occurred here: the lynching of two IDF reserve officers in October 2000 after they made a mistaken turn and were set upon by a mob. The memory of that brutal slaying remains so searing that Ramallah and barbarism are two nouns that now seem knotted together in an inextricable embrace.

RamallahSo why go there? It was certainly not an uncommon question. Friends, family, government press officials and even politicians asked it. Why take such a risk as this?

There were two good reasons. One, I told them, I would be traveling with a United Nations escort and would therefore be under safe protection. Two: Why not? How often does a conservative commentator on the Middle East get to journey into the very eye of the storm, where tragic episodes in the story of the Middle East are being written everyday? Why be just another armchair journalist who thinks he understands the conflict by reading the reports of others? The fascination of Ramallah is that it represents hard, cold reality and that is an irresistible attraction to any journalist.

So on to Ramallah. First, a confession. I did not have an official 'United Nations escort'. I traveled with an employee of the United Nations, a native Australian like myself, to whom I had been introduced by my younger brother. He possessed two things that were essential to the trip. The first, a knowledge of the town. ( "Ramallah," he commented wistfully, "once served some of the best sangria and had the best gym in the country.") The second, a UN van that indispensably bore the letters "UN" in bold on its paneling. Much like the journalists who travel about Judea and Samaria with the letters "TV" or "CNN" taped to their vehicles, these English letters could just as easily be translated into Arabic as "don't shoot us, we're friendly!" It works.

From Jerusalem it takes 35 minutes to reach Ramallah, about the same time it takes me to reach downtown from the Westside of Los Angeles. Barely beyond the outskirts of town we came upon the Kalandia Checkpoint. Here, at the shortest entry point into the city, residents must pass through a rigorous process every day if they wish to enter or leave the town. As the homicide bombings have become more frequent so have the rigors of the search process. For returning residents of Ramallah this search and interrogation can be excruciating, sometimes consuming hours.

The check points have become a major source of contention for the foreign press who see them as symbols of Israeli oppression. And the truth is, they do disrupt life. But even as my traveling companion agreed, none of it would be necessary if terrorism hadn't been adopted as a negotiating tool by the Palestinian leadership. The Kalandia Checkpoint, at least at its current level of scrutiny, did not exist prior to September, 2000. In talking to some of the Israeli soldiers who manned the post, none of whom take much pleasure in their work, there is a recognition that without the checkpoints, hundreds of Israelis could be exposed to the murderous intent of homocide bombers.

We by-passed the checkpoint and took the back route into Ramallah, passing the hilltop village of Psagot where I was once shown how the houses along the Jewish town's northern edge stare directly into the bedrooms of their Arab neighbors.

Several smaller checkpoints needed to be cleared as we displayed our passports and press credentials. Then we entered Ramallah, driving the same route taken by the unfortunate young men in October 2000. Soon after we entered, I noticed how the wreckage left by recent Israeli campaigns such as Defensive Shield lay scattered by the roadside.

RamallahBurned truck chassis, heaps of rubble, scattered remains of houses were everywhere along the roadside. My companion pointed out buildings that had been shelled and I noticed bullet pockmarks everywhere. As we entered the outskirts of Ramallah, I thought how similar it all looked to some of the South American townships I had visited 15 years ago. It had an appearance of desolation and neglect that is the signature stamp of poverty in the Third World. Unpaved sidewalks, potholed streets, shops with broken awnings, mangy dogs roaming the streets, all being baked under a hot sun.

Within five minutes we were in the center of town and here there was a sudden transformation. The narrow streets bustled with life. Young men with cellphones, teenage girls with Linkin Park t-shirts, some even in jeans and tank tops. They competed with other women in chadoors and burkahs. As I drove the ten or so blocks through the center of town, the rush of activity made me feel as if I could be back in a bustling downtown Melbourne.

What accounted for the superficial image of prosperity? "Aid," said my companion bluntly , "millions of it from the United States and Europe. Almost everyone here lives on welfare from abroad."

I could also have been invisible for all the attention I attracted. So familiar are the UN vans that no one gives them a second glance. Traveling in this bubble was a terrific way to see life in a place that for most Israelis has become a foreign city - as distant and unapproachable as Antarctica.

We stopped at a small café near the center of town and entered it. Here my UN escort was obviously well known and the café owner greeted him companionably. We drank tea and coffee and he gave me a thoughtful overview of the situation which was surprisingly even-handed. He took a familiar UN view of the West Bank as occupied territory and had little respect for the policies of Sharon, whom sees as a military strategist and not a politician. But he had far more damning things to say about Arafat, the sacrifices to which he has needlessly subjected his people and his delivery of all his diplomatic achievements into the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

As he spoke, Arab men came into the café and they exchanged greetings with us. Outside I heard the name Avi called. I froze. I was not traveling under that name. Had I been discovered? I looked into the eyes of these men and wondered if they had come for me. It was the only time in the entire day I became very nervous (as opposed to just a little nervous). Recognizing my edginess, they calmed me by telling me that the name called had been "Abu."

My companion introduced me to them as an Australian journalist and we fell into conversation. Unsurprisingly, they were supportive of Arafat (to speak any other way in Ramallah is to risk branding as a collaborator) but they also spoke with equal vituperation about Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad , whom they felt, ombined, had ruined their lives. After speaking to them and others I recognized that the Arab rebellion is fast approaching its breaking point, shattered by internal dissension, exhausted by years of fruitless war . I also recognized that without a new leadership the Palestinian dream of independence is years away from realization. Locked in a political limbo, squeezed between extremism and political incompetence, these people are likely to be the welfare wards of Europe and America for years into the future.

We left the cafe and drove to the Mukata. The images on television had not represented the true scale of destruction. It looked like a lunar landscape – mountainous piles of rubble studded with iron bars and shattered concrete slabs towering above the street. I saw Arafat's tiny headquarters isolated in the center of this one time British army camp. It seemed extraordinarily insignificant in that mass of debris and could well be seen as a symbol of the rapid decline of Arafat's role and relevance. It is also clearly what the Israeli army had in mind.

Had it achieved this aim ? The answer is mixed. It seemed that the lone Israeli tank sitting at the edge of the ruined compound, was more the target of Palestinian scorn and rejection than the men sitting inside that isolated building. But equally, the sight of their leader, reduced to obtaining briefings amidst the rubble of his own compound , could not have added much to Arafat's prestige. More than likely the destruction of the Mukata, if not exactly a mistake, might have given Arafat more reason to play the martyr, a role he relishes and one he has allotted to his own people. Prior to the destruction, he was doing a fine job of delegitimizing himself. He probably needed no further push along that path.

I had come to Ramallah to meet some of the Palestinian representatives for a documentary on Jenin that I am involved in producing. Appointments had been set up with Hanan Ashwari, Mustafa Barghouthi and Palestinian sympathizer, Ha'aretz reporter Amira Haas who actually lives in Ramallah. All, for one reason or another, had been cancelled. But as we left Ramallah we passed the houses of some of these representatives.

They were fine middle class homes that would not have looked out of place in some of Jerusalem's tonier suburbs. Yet they were surrounded on all sides by half built houses and hovels. How odd, I thought, that amidst such squalor there could exist such symbols of prosperity.

But contradiction is the nature of the Middle East and for the Arab world symbolism is as important, if not more so, than facts on the ground. The Arabs of Ramallah live in a netherworld between tragedy and farce, hemmed in by forces over which they have little control.

They suffer as victims yet curiously it is a victim-hood born of their own culture. Schooled in a belief in the priority of symbol over fact they have historically squandered repeated opportunities to improve their political, economic and social conditions and then blamed others for their own poor choices. This perhaps explains how Arafat can regard himself as a victor in the midst of the Mukata's rubble. It explains his heroic, rapturous reception in Ramallah after he returned from Camp David in the summer of 2000 after rejecting the most generous offer the Palestinians are ever likely to receive for the fulfillment of their national ambitions. It certainly goes quite some way to explaining the shallow dependence on international sympathy for a cause that has surrendered its moral basis to the twisted logic of homicide bombings.

As I left the town, I looked at the dilapidated houses , half built edifices and rubble and began to see them as metaphors for the collapse of Palestinian self-understanding. It made me more convinced than ever that if Palestinian redemption is still a possiblity the very last place to expect it to appear is in the streets of Ramallah.

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles.

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