West Bank Story: Ramallah

Ever since the annexation of East Jerusalem, the town of Ramallah has served as the unofficial capital of the Palestinian Authority. It’s a city of some 118000 which contains some of the most thriving businesses of Palestine, as well as several government institutions, such as the “Palestine Standards Institution”.

Getting to Ramallah from East Jerusalem is a breeze – a wide road runs there and you generally don’t need to pass through any checkpoints. However, easy isn’t exactly my middle name, so together with three friends we decided to make our way there from Hebron. This is an interesting adventure, as it shows the difficulties Palestinians encounter in getting to their capital.

Based out of East Jerusalem, it’s easy to take a sherut, or service taxi from the city centre to Ramallah. These taxis wait until full, and then depart for Jerusalem. Prices are relatively low, not more than 10-15 sheckles each. Inhabitants of East Jerusalem are permitted to enter the West Bank, and thus can run these lucrative taxi routes.

When you’re based in Hebron, on the other hand, you’re based in the Palestinian Territories. Palestinians are not permitted to enter Jerusalem, and as such cannot take the main highway through Jerusalem towards Ramallah. They would end up at one of the many checkpoints along the security fence, and would be turned back (at best). Below is a picture of the Calandia checkpoint, which shields Ramallah from Jerusalem.

Instead, they have to take smaller Palestinian roads which circle all the way around Jerusalem. This UN map gives a good few of the intricacies involved. In all, getting to Hebron from Jerusalem takes about 35 minutes, getting to Ramallah from Jerusalem about 15, and getting from Ramallah to Hebron about 2h30. And even during that trip, an unexpected checkpoint was thrown up, where I was interrogated as to my business in Ramallah by an IDF soldier. Tourism didn’t seem to be an effective answer. Antonio, a Venezuelan whom I was making the trip with, suggested “Buying the handicrafts“. Have to try that next time.

Once we got there, the people were amazingly friendly. The guy in the picture at the top of this blog entry noticed I was photographing the view from Ramallah’s main drag, and we ended up having a nice chat with them, all local students. Shortly afterwards, Sam, a local business owner told us about his local business, a Chicago-style fast food restaurant, and the three US branches he had recently started. They’re all over in the US, and run by his brother, but once I make it there I’ll certainly pay them a visit. Being a Palestinian, he couldn’t deliver to Jerusalem. Too bad.
Ramallah initially gained importance in the Palestinian sense when it was chosen by Yasser Arafat to contain the Mukata’a, or the Palestinian West Bank headquarters. Arafat, depending on your source either the greatest figure in Palestinian life, or the one blockade to every near-Peace agreement, was locked into his Mukata’a by the IDF after attending a meeting there during which a twin suicide bombing took place in Haifa.

It currently still houses its grave, which is treated with significant respect by the local population. The Mukata’a still serves as the West Bank office of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Compared to many other countries, Palestine is a very moderate Islamic society, and Ramallah actually has a female mayor, Janet Mikhail. The entire conflict also isn’t much grounded in religion versus religion, but is neck deep into a territorial conflict. Religion however doesn’t make it much easier by imposing requirements in the sidelines which are not compatible with actual peace.

The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” (Genesis 13:15)

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