Things get better, things get worse. Report 1, June 2005.
For some there was never an Intifada (uprising), it was just a name given to another point in the series of political ups and downs. For others, it has ended, somewhat unofficially with Arafat's death. For others, it is still going on; the resistance movement is far from over. Whichever way one wishes to define the moment now, things have kind of changed, or maybe not.
It has been two years since I have been back to the Palestinian Territories. I wasn't sure how much change to expect, how much would be better, or how much would be worse. Some things are not surprising: settlements have grown much fatter at the seams; young women's shirts in Ramallah are tighter and more revealing; more satellite dishes are present on rooftops; a new multi-million dollar renovation of Ben Gurion airport.
Other changes are to be expected, but when seen in reality are actually shocking. Namely the wall. Two years ago I had to travel in to the Northern parts of rural areas to find the wall, now it finds me as I walk out the store, in East Jerusalem, in ar-Ram, in Qalandia, in Bethlehem... If anything has improved, progressed, grown, become more definitive or solid, it is the wall - or the security fence, if anyone is still foolish and blind enough to call it as such.
The neighborhood of ar-Ram has been divided in half, with a wall built in the middle of the main thoroughway that connects the checkpoints into Ramallah and those into Jerusalem. Stores have disappeared, closed down from the lack of business. Some are having their final sales, desperate to make money not because they are retiring or because new inventory is coming in, but because business has been slow ever since the wall has been erected. People have had to forcibly move farther into the West Bank so as to re-establish themselves, their stores, and their homes. Many houses now along the route of the Wall have a new suffocating and disparaging view out of the windows and front entrance: slabs of greyness. Even where there has been little adventure of grafitti by children or bored adults or foreign peace activists, it only cover a fraction of the greyness since the Wall is 8-meters high.
The checkpoints have changed too. Some have disappeared. No sign of their existence present, as if these country roads have always been empty of threats. Other checkpoints have grown in size, looking more menacing, surrounded by more barbed wire, concrete slabs, Israeli soldiers, chaos… The requirement of permits to travel around has been eased for some, but gotten more restricted for others. Rumor has it that soon, when the Wall will be complete from all fronts, every Palestinian wanting to enter into the walled territories will need an Israeli Civil Administration issued-travel permit.
There's a new government. The muqataa (compound) is still there, but now it has security guards, policemen, with guns, a wall around it, an official entrance, a clean unripped Palestinian flag. Although the bombed buildings still remain in the muqataa's midst. There's a new building for the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers. Suddenly, again, after years of absence, foreign civil servants and diplomats seem to be in town everyday. Even the British and American ones. Now the PA (Palestinian Authority) is recognized again. The police force is slowly inching back into existence. Money is flowing in from abroad. Millions of dollars are being pledged for countless NGO (non-governmental organizations) programs: democracy building, gender equality, capacity building, youth empowerment, the list of jargon goes on. The Americans have recognized the PA and increased their funding as well. And not just into the pockets of the NGOs, but on billboards and in broadcasted advertisements everywhere: USAID, the largest most notable U.S. government donor to the Territories, is on a propaganda rampage in the West Bank and Gaza to convince Palestinians of its noble cause.
Wealth has perhaps occurred. There are new cool and trendy cafes and restaurants in Ramallah. Some with lush outdoor areas where more young women than I remember are hanging out, smoking their water pipes. Often times they're in the company of young men. Some young women are wearing tighter, more revealing t-shirts and outfits. But there are also more fully covered women, with with abayyas over everything but their eyes. Ramallah remains an island of urban and elite life, the New York or Paris of Palestine. But on its outskirts, beyond its hills, something else has grown as well: poverty. There are more flour sacs being distributed, more families living on aid and assistance programs, more men migrating from the villages into the cities, looking for work. It's on a small scale, but for a "nation" as small as this one, the rural migration of men is slowly comparing to the one in China. They come for the week looking for work, hopefully in construction, if they are lucky, and try to head home for the weekends. With jobs in Israel no longer allowed, it is now the pseudo-urban centers of the Territories that become attractive. An out of work university professor has capitalized on this and opened up a simple little restaurant on the outskirts of Ramallah, near the apartment buildings where these men squat, sometimes up to ten or twelve in a room. The new restauranteur and his wife spend all day cooking, selling home-made meals to workers, for the bargain price of 5 shekels (about US$1.25).
Things have inevitably changed since my last visit. Perhaps they have gotten better. A new crew is in power, a few cops are trying to maintain traffic control, some politicians profess peace is near, optimism should be buzzing aplenty, money is flowing in. There are changes of course, and I'm sure some are positive – however we wish to measure or qualify… But I can't help but notice how many of these changes are detrimental to very things that were missing on my last visit: things that will really bring optimism, wealth, stability, peace. There may be new chic places to hang out, new ministers and renewed relations. But there's also a prison wall being completed, dependency being fortified, more children trying to sell their nimble abilities on the market, more hilltops made off-limits for the growing settlements. There are a lot more homeless beggars too. For a country, a culture and a religion in which poverty and begging is close to sin, it is becoming less surprising to see women digging through the garbage late at night, looking for food.
Downtown Ramallah and USAID billboards.
The new Mall and the new Wall.
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