An Israeli in Ramallah
It's Friday, June 15, a day after Hamas took over power in Gaza via a military coup, otherwise known as civil war, and I'm in Ramallah.
The West Bank is as close to the action as an Israeli citizen can get these days, since all Israelis, even those holding dual citizenship, as I do, have been prohibited from entering Gaza for the past six months.
The Israeli media is trying to overcome this limitation by commissioning reports from Hebrew-speaking Palestinians in Gaza, which is helping somewhat to give a wider picture of what's going on beyond Erez Checkpoint.
But it turned out that there were plenty of interesting Gaza-related stories in Ramallah, too, which is why I'm there, along with plenty of journalists.
Fatah members from Gaza loyal to strongman Mahmoud Dahlan are staying at Ramallah's luxurious Grand Park Hotel, together with their families. The kids were playing in the hotel pool, while their fathers were sitting on the overstuffed couches in the lobby, huddled in groups and carrying on hushed conversations as they smoked endless cigarettes and drank strong Arabic coffee out of small cups.
According to reports on Israeli television news, these Dahlan loyalists escaped from Gaza through Erez Checkpoint with coordination between Mahmoud Abbas's office and the Israeli security services. Abbas supplied a list of Gazans he wanted brought to safety in Ramallah, and the Israelis let them travel through Israel to get there. Erez was closed to Gazans who were not on the list. Several of the five star refugees in Ramallah gave interviews to Israeli television reporters.
Wearing Ralph Lauren polo shirts and speaking fluent Hebrew, they told hair-raising stories of teenage boys presumed loyal to Fatah being flung from the fourteenth floor of office buildings, their hands shackled and their mouths taped shut. One man said that the Hamas fighters had behaved worse than the Nazis. All this should be taken with a grain of salt, of course: Nazi comparisons are flung around with abandon in the Middle East, and we have not heard from the Hamas fighters what the Fatah guys may or may not have done to them. The unspoken message, though, is interesting: suddenly Fatah represents the reasonable, civilized Palestinians. They speak Hebrew, they look like us and they sound like us, and Islamist militants threaten them just as they threaten Israel.
We had also heard that Mahmoud Dahlan, the Fatah leader in Gaza who had been lying low in Cairo for weeks, presumably (and justifiably) too afraid to return to Gaza, had just turned up in Ramallah. We didn't have any illusions about snagging an interview, but perhaps it would be possible to photograph him from a distance.
And, of course, we wanted to check out the mood on the fabled street.
When we arrived mid-morning, the streets were very quiet - as befits a weekend. There were a few reporters hanging around in Manar Square, the center of downtown Ramallah, waiting to see if anything would happen. Some local guys were hanging out in the square, reading newspapers and drinking coffee purchased at a makeshift stand set up on a corner. Cars passed and, as the morning progressed, shop owners arrived and rolled up the metal shutters to start a sleepy weekend business day. I found a few spent cartridges on the street - evidence of the reported shooting that had taken place the previous night. We also saw a local Hamas PR office that had been set on fire by Fatah fighters. On the other hand, the employees of a local television station that is identified with Fatah told us that their offices had been raided by Hamas a few days previously. Still, despite all that, the streets of Ramallah seemed normal and calm on Friday.
Since nothing was happening in Manar Square on Friday morning, we headed over to the Grand Park Hotel. The female receptionist looked at us suspiciously and claimed that none of the Fatah men were staying there, but we spotted a few sitting on the slightly shabby couches in the lobby, smoking cigarettes and leaning forward to engage in intense-looking conversations. So we sat down on some couches nearby and waited for an opportunity to speak with them. After a few minutes the manager, clad in a blue blazer with a nametag on his breast pocket, approached us and asked what we were doing there. Upon hearing that we were reporters, he told us that we could not take any photographs in the hotel. We promised to obey the rule, and he left us alone after asking if we would like to order anything to drink. After awhile we asked the Fatah guys if they would be willing to speak to us. They didn't refuse outright, just told us politely that it was not a good time but we could stop by in the afternoon and see if they were available. It was a very "inshallah" response - in other words, not promising at all. Apparently they were more interested in telling their stories to Israeli television than to reporters who worked for the foreign press. So we decided to head over to the main mosque in the market area, to see what would happen during Friday mid-day prayers.
The New York Times reported that the market was unusually quiet, but it looked pretty normal to me. There were fruit and vegetable stands with colorful displays of produce that included watermelons with stickers that announced in Hebrew they were picked by Carmel Farms, an Israeli company. Stall owners selling clothes, dishes and cheap plastic toys called out their prices to passersby, and there were plenty of shoppers - including one bearded, unkempt guy who wore a blue T-shirt that advertised the services of an Israeli moving company in Hebrew. Mohammed, our translator, told us that he was a Romanian foreign worker in Israel who shopped in Ramallah nearly every Friday, because the lower prices were lower. He said it was very common to see Eastern European foreign workers from Israel shopping in Ramallah on Fridays, which is the first day of the weekend in Israel.
We stopped some passersby to ask for their take on events in Gaza. The responses were all pretty much the same: They said they felt humiliated by the internecine fighting in Gaza, that they wanted their leaders to effect reconciliation and for life to get better. At one point, while we were speaking to a middle aged man wearing a keffiyeh, a guy who sold drinks on the street crept up behind me and muttered in my ear, "No Hamas!" I turned around, smiled at him and asked if he spoke English - but he didn't, so the conversation ended there.
We did not see any Hamas supporters on the street that day. People said they were in hiding, or that they had shaved off their telltale beards in order to avoid being attacked on the streets. One guy approached me while I was waiting outside the mosque for Friday prayers to start, slid his finger across his throat and told me that Fatah would execute Hamas supporters in Ramallah, just as Hamas had done to Fatah fighters in Gaza.
But that was the only allusion to violence I heard in Ramallah. The Friday prayers started without incident, and the imam's sermon was conciliatory. He spoke about tolerance, which he said was the true root of Islam. If we practiced Islam as the Prophet meant for it to be practiced, he said, we Palestinians would not be in the position we find ourselves in today.
Conciliatory sermons aside, the security services affiliated with Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party were prepared for trouble at the mosque. At one point, just after the sermon ended, several trucks filled with armed men wearing combat uniforms and red berets drove by slowly. Further along the street, we saw some Force 17 fighters wearing camouflage gear and ski masks, but they seemed to be there mostly for show. They just stood there, legs spread apart in a parody of macho body language, displaying their weapons prominently and staring stonily into the distance. But the commercial life of the market continued normally, with most people walking past the uniformed men looking indifferent or mildly curious.
I have visited the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority on several occasions, and I always enjoy myself. The city has a unique atmosphere - it's about as liberal, secular and "normal" as you'll find in the Palestinian territories. There are plenty of attractive young women with manicured nails and blonde streaked hair, wearing tight Diesel jeans and high heels, shopping or sitting in the cafes. The shops are well stocked with merchandise, and there are late-model Mercedes and Audis tooling the streets. Ramallah also has a thriving cultural life: all over the downtown area, there are banners and posters announcing films and music performances. Of course there are also posters of shaheeds (martyrs), but they are not as common or overwhelming as in other West Bank cities and towns. One Palestinian reporter, a guy in his late twenties who lived most of his life in Jordan, told me he much preferred Ramallah to Amman. He said he felt far freer to express his opinion and live as he wished in Ramallah. "The Jordanian secret police are real bastards," he said. "Nobody dares to speak openly about politics in Amman. If it weren't for the checkpoints, the West Bank would be paradise." I would not run around Ramallah announcing that I am Israeli, but quite a few local acquaintances know where I come from and I've even had conversations in Hebrew while hanging out in the downtown area. I have even spoken Hebrew to an Israeli colleague while standing in the Muqata. And I have never felt a moment's unease.
On Friday afternoon in Manar Square, for example, I ran into Ohad Hemo, an acquaintance who covers Palestinian affairs for Israel's Channel 1 news. By then there was finally some media-worthy action. A few dozen Fatah-aligned fighters had shown up in the square, most traveling on the back of pick up trucks. They wore combat-style uniforms, although some wore street shoes instead of army boots. Their faces were covered in ski masks and they brandished weapons in what the Times called a "a show of force by Fatah." That sounds very dramatic, of course, but the reality was not very impressive: again, I felt as though I were watching a parody of machismo that seemed a bit silly, if not comic.
Other than stare into the camera and pose, the fighters didn't do anything at all. It was all pure theatre: I listened and watched as the various foreign television reporters positioned themselves in front of the masked gunmen and spoke seriously to the cameras about the rising tension in Ramallah, trying their best to make it sound as if they were in the middle of a war zone. But if their cameramen had panned out for a wider shot they would have shown crowds of mostly young men hanging around, eating snacks, buying cold drinks from vendors, and taking photos with their mobile phones. There was no sense of fear or menace at all. I even saw one photojournalist, who works for an American newspaper, giggling a bit as she aimed her camera at a masked fighter who was posing as if he were having his portrait painted, his eyes stonily focused on the horizon.
If those cameramen had panned out for a wider shot, they might even have seen me and Ohad speaking to one another in Hebrew. Or better yet, they might have caught a rather amusing exchange between Ohad and a middle aged local Palestinian man. Hearing Ohad speaking Hebrew, he walked over, extended his hand with a friendly smile, and said in fluent Hebrew with an Arabic accent, "So, how are things in Israel? What are they saying about us over there?" Ohad switched to Arabic, which he speaks fluently, and told the man that the Israeli media was already referring to Gaza as Hamastan, and to the West Bank as Fatahland. They continued chatting in this vein for another minute or two, and then parted with another friendly handshake.
Friday was actually the second time I visited Ramallah in as many days. On Wednesday I went to observe a peace demonstration, which also took place in Manar Square. The point of the demonstration was to call for Palestinian unity and an end to the internecine fighting in Gaza. A small group of people - maybe 40 - gathered and chanted slogans while waving Palestinian flags and black flags of mourning. True to their universal message, the demonstrators represented a cross-section of Palestinian society - with women wearing the hijab and modest long skirts standing next to bareheaded women clad in jeans and sneakers. But there were far more reporters than demonstrators, which reminded me of an anti-occupation demonstration organized by Peace Now, an Israeli NGO, that had taken place the week before in Hebron. There, too, the turnout was low while the presence of reporters and security forces was high. And both times I felt a sense of pointlessness. In Ramallah, I turned to my friend Samer, a Palestinian cameraman who works for a North American television station. "It's as if people don't bother to show up because they don't have hope anymore," I remarked. "Exactly," responded Samer. "No hope."
That Wednesday we tried to avoid the long queues at the major checkpoint leading back to Israel by taking an alternate route, but it turned out that the Israeli army was doing construction work at the usually less-trafficked checkpoint, so there was a delay. A queue of Palestinian truck drivers were waiting in front of the closed gate for the construction workers to take a break so the soldiers could let them through. We asked one of the soldiers how long the delay would last. He shrugged and answered that it might be five minutes or an hour - he didn't know. My friend repeated the soldier's response to one of the Palestinian truck drivers. He smiled and answered in Hebrew, "Okay. So we will wait."