A trip to this Palestinian town can shatter preconceptions and compel the mind to dream about the possibilities of peace and then awaken to the cold realities of a complicated conflict.
You may expect to see squalor and desolation in the city that serves as the capital for the Palestinian Authority. Instead, you have to work your way through a bustling downtown of crowded streets and impenetrable traffic jams, complete with vibrant commerce. You can admire the designs of bright new buildings or stop for coffee or a cool “smoozy” at Stars and Bucks.
Amid the global recession, the West Bank is enjoying an economic boom unlike any it has seen in years. As many have noted, prosperity is not a substitute nor a guarantee of peace, but it conjures images of what peace could bring. Just imagine it: normalcy.
Ramallah is booming, but it is not a normal town. On posters still affixed to downtown walls, you see the distant look in the faces of Palestinian suicide bombers, glorified for carrying out acts of murder that our minds can scarcely comprehend. Beneath the surface lies a maelstrom of ideology and politics that won’t easily disappear.
Practically all the men here wear Western clothes. The much-advertised secularism of Ramallah, however, is much less visible among women. By my estimation, more than 90 percent of the women wear some type of hijab, the Muslim head cover. Others, especially among the young, wear modern clothes with a scarf over their hair.
That religiosity is not how I remember Ramallah from many years ago, when going into the West Bank required little more than a short drive from Jerusalem. But times have changed, and then they changed again.
Until 1967, Jordan controlled Ramallah and the entire West Bank, which it had captured in the 1948 war that followed Israel’s declaration of Independence. In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, and suddenly Palestinians could travel to Israel, go to the beach and find jobs. Israelis, too, came to Palestinian towns to buy groceries and drink Turkish coffee. When the wave of terrorism started, however, some of those crossing to Israel went for the sole purpose of killing Jews. The resulting security arrangements made life much harder for everyone.
Now you have to cross Israel’s separation barrier, an ordeal for Palestinians. Nobody likes that barrier, which is a fence in most places, but near Ramallah is an ugly, disheartening wall. Palestinians despise it, and Israelis tend to look down when they talk about it. The reality is that it helped bring an end to suicide bombings that made life in Israel a heart-pounding nightmare. Israeli guards at the checkpoints still stop would-be attackers. In the dream of peace, the wall becomes unnecessary.
The current boom in Ramallah may mark the start of a long-lasting trend. But it could just as easily prove short-lived. In a recent trip to Washington, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas told The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl that he would refuse to talk to Israel until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agrees to a complete freeze of all construction in East Jerusalem and in West Bank Jewish settlements.
Because times are good, he said he could refuse to negotiate with Israel and would also not help President Obama persuade Arab governments to make conciliatory gestures toward Israel. Netanyahu has made some concessions, but he has rejected the full freeze that would bring down his government. Obama’s peace push looks stalled.
In the meantime, Abbas is reportedly close to signing a reconciliation deal with his bitter rivals of Hamas. If the agreement comes, Palestinian elections may follow. That would mean Hamas and Fatah campaigning for popular support where there is no better way to motivate voters than by defying and taunting Israel. Interesting times lie ahead for a place where times are never dull.
Ramallah’s prosperity shows how much everyone has to gain from peace. But a closer look reveals that, tragically, lasting peace remains a dream.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.