May 19, 2006

The Other Side of the Green Line

West Bank Through Barbed Wire.jpg

RAMALLAH - I rode in an Israeli taxi with Palestinian journalist Sufian Taha from the American Colony Hotel to the Qalandia checkpoint on the road to Ramallah, capital of nascent Palestine, in the hills of the West Bank over Jerusalem. We had to take a taxi, and we had to switch to a Palestinian taxi after we reached the other side. “You do not want to drive in the West Bank with Israeli plates on your car,” he said.

In the northern suburbs of Jerusalem you can see both sides of the Green Line at the same time. The West Bank is right there. Everything is piled on top of everything else.

“That’s an Arab neighborhood on the left side of the street,” Sufian said. “Israelis live on the right side. They live so close, but they hate each other. They are like cousins fighting over their grandfather’s inheritance.”

Then we hit the wall.

Driving Along the Wall.jpg

“Here the wall divides two Arab neighborhoods from each other,” he said.

“Why did they build it right here?” I said.

“I don’t know why they are doing it here,” he said.

Rocky hills, typical of the Mediterranean, rolled toward the horizon. Arab settlements clustered here, Jewish settlements clustered there, and the wall crazily cut through everything like a snake lost in the grass. It was impossible to intuit the logic just by looking at it.

It took maybe five minutes to reach Qalandia from Jerusalem.

The Wall Begins.jpg

It was time to get out and walk. I could see the skyline of Ramallah just past the checkpoint.

Ramallah Skyline from Qalandia.jpg

“How long is this going to take?” I said to Sufian.

“Sometimes it takes minutes,” he said. “Sometimes it takes hours. It depends on the security situation and how crowded it is.”

This time the checkpoint took only minutes. The line was mercifully short. And the Israeli Defense Forces soldier waved both Sufian and me through in a matter of seconds without asking questions.

My experience at the checkpoint was breezy and pleasant. But it is a hideous thing that looks like a militarized gateway to a Third World disaster. Welcome to Palestine.

Checkpoint Barbed Wire.jpg

We walked past some ramshackle shops blasting Arabic pop music too loud on bad speakers and hopped into a group servis mini-van taxi. There were ten other people inside, six men and four fashionably dressed young women with hijabs over their hair. I was the only non-Palestinian. No one seemed to pay any attention to me.

Two minutes later we were in downtown Ramallah.

“We get out here,” Sufian said and paid the driver my fare.

I stepped out into a surprisingly pleasant urban environment.

Ramallah Building.jpg

Ramallah Square.jpg

“No offense, Sufian, but this city is a lot nicer than I expected,” I said.

“Ramallah is beautiful,” he said with pride.

I didn’t think it was beautiful, exactly, but it did not look even remotely like the Third World war zone it’s reputed to be. I noticed no visible poverty once we left the squalor around the checkpoint. I was, however, warned by Israelis that Ramallah and Bethlehem are much nicer than the rest of the West Bank and need to be judged accordingly.

Ramallah Culture.jpg

“Do you want to meet some people now?” Sufian said.

When he had earlier asked what I wanted to do in Ramallah I told him I wanted to meet Palestinians opposed to Hamas. I already knew what Hamas had to say. They get all the attention in the newspapers now. There is no point in going all the way to the West Bank just so I could publish more of the same predictable bombastic slogans. I had no idea what their opponents were thinking now, and it seemed more worth my time to meet some of them. Sufian himself was a good start.

“Let’s walk around a bit first,” I said. “I want to see what Ramallah is like.”

So we walked.

Ramallah Buildings 1.jpg

There is no more political propaganda on display in Ramallah than there is in Israel. This surprised me after several visits to Lebanon’s Hezbollahland where portraits of “martyrs” and tyrants are literally everywhere.

Hezbollah is moderate and civilized compared with Hamas. So I expected even more visible evidence of derangement in the Hamas government’s capital. But there are at least 100 times as many psychotic billboards and posters in Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon as there are in Ramallah.

Ramallah is also in much better physical condition than the parts of Lebanon ruled by Hezbollah, even though Ramallah has experienced war a lot more recently. In fact, Ramallah is in better condition than any Shia region of Lebanon whether it’s ruled by Hezbollah or not. The only Sunni part of Lebanon that looks nicer than Ramallah is West Beirut.

Ramallah Skyline Up Close.jpg

The Palestinian capital is no longer occupied by the Israelis. I didn’t see any Palestinian policemen either. Nor did I see any Hamas or Fatah milita men. I am so accustomed to seeing men with guns in the Middle East - in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey - that Ramallah looked weirdly disarmed by comparison. At least it did on the day I was there. (There are lots of guns in Palestine. I am only talking about how Ramallah looked on the surface.)

I’ve experienced this over and over again everywhere I’ve gone in the Middle East (except wretched Turkish Kurdistan): places that are supposedly awful and dangerous are, up close, seemingly normal places full of normal people doing normal things.

Street Scene Ramallah.jpg

Water Vendor Ramallah.jpg

I don’t want to make too much of Ramallah’s apparent normalcy. It is the Hamas government’s capital. And the city is a golden cage. It’s a reasonably pleasant enough place. But it’s surrounded by far worse Palestinian places and off-limits Israeli places.

“The economy here looks a lot better than I expected,” I said to Sufian.

“It was pretty good until Hamas was elected,” he said. “But look in the stores. Notice there are no people in them. The only things people are buying are food and cigarettes. Only the basics. They are afraid to spend money if they have it.”

Store Window Ramallah.jpg

The streets were vibrant, though. The city seemed cultured. There were plenty of women around, which is something always worth noting in Muslim cities. Some are overwhelmingly male dominated. Ramallah is not so much.

I sensed no hostility whatsoever, and it’s not because I fit in.

“People here must think I’m Israeli,” I said to Sufian.

“No,” he said. “The way you look, the way you walk, you are obviously an American.”

I didn’t know about that. In any case, there are a lot of American Jews living in Israel. I sensed Sufian said it to make me feel better. But I didn’t feel bad in the first place. I felt perfectly fine. The only thing that worried me while walking around Ramallah is that I felt too relaxed, that the city looked more at peace with itself and the world than it really is.

Sufian took me to a cafe and bought me a gigantic glass of freshly squeezed juice. We sat at a square wooden table. I sipped my juice through a straw while flipping to a blank page in my notebook.

“Who did you vote for in the election?” I said.

“I didn’t vote,” he said. “There was no one worth voting for. Our parties are terrible.”

I would have said I know the feeling, but Good Lord. Whining about the Democrats and the Republicans to a guy who is stuck with the likes of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah and Hamas would just sound pathetic.

“What do you think about the prospects for peace now that Hamas won?” I said.

“The Israelis have an opportunity,” he said. “A piece of the puzzle was missing before. Permanent peace must have the signature of the Islamists. Now the Israelis can get it.”

The Israelis can get it if the Islamists will give it, and if they will give it sincerely. That doesn’t look even remotely likely any time soon. I asked Yossi Klein Halevi if it was even possible to be optimistic under the circumstances. He said “I’m optimistic that we might be able to solve this after the next war.” That’s about as hopeful as it gets.

Sufian had a point, even so. If Yasser Arafat had signed a peace treaty for sovereignty with Ehud Barak in 2000, Hamas would have ignored it and continued waging jihad for all of historic “Palestine from the river to the sea,” which includes Haifa and Tel Aviv as well as Hebron and Nablus.

Sufian is a Palestinian, not an Israeli Arab. But he has an Israeli residency permit, and he lives in Jerusalem.

“When there is a Palestinian state,” I said, “where you would rather live? In Israel or in Palestine?”

“I don’t care which side I live on,” he said, “as long as I can travel wherever I want.”

I groaned about how tired I was of this conflict that never ends.

“It will be good for everyone when Israel is accepted as part of this region,” he said. “The other countries will get some of Israel’s technology. Everyone will benefit from more money and tourism.”

“What do you think about the intifada?” I said.

“The intifada was about the different political parties trying to earn popularity,” he said. “Hamas was only at two percent in the 1990s. Now they’re popular. Israelis benefited from the intifada, too. They got the wall and the borders they wanted. Hamas is fashionable right now. In five years they won’t be. Many many people voted for them as revenge against Fatah. They are clean. Fatah is a mafia. They are from the 1930s.”

“Was Fatah better or worse than Hamas?” I said.

“They were 1 percent right and 99 percent wrong,” he said. “Arafat was 100 percent pure evil. He was like a messiah to us when he was abroad. When he came here we learned the truth.”

“You live in Jerusalem,” I said. “What do you think about Israelis?”

“I have Israeli friends,” he said. “I tell them things that I don’t tell some of my Arab friends. It depends on the person, not the nationality.”

We sipped our juice.

“I think Americans don’t like Palestinians much,” he said.

“Look,” I said. “Americans don’t like Hamas. Americans don’t like terrorism. It really is that simple. Americans don’t have a problem with people like you just because you’re Palestinian.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think you are the exception.”

“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m typical. As far as politics goes, I’m a middle-of-the-road average American.” But I couldn’t convince him. He is certain most Americans don’t like him just for who he is and where he was born.

It was time to move. Sufian wasn’t the only Palestinian I wanted to talk to.

We walked around the corner and stepped into a fashionable young women’s clothing store owned by Named Saleh Jad Allah, a pre-maturely graying 50 year-old man with a warm smile. Posters of gorgeous French models lined the walls. There were no customers inside his store.

Named didn’t ask why Sufian and I stopped in. He just gave me a cup of Turkish coffee and a cigarette and he asked us to sit. We went through the usual Arab formalities. Where are you from, welcome to Palestine, etc. Our chitchat was punctuated by long silences that were not at all uncomfortable. Arabs relax in conversation with strangers more easily than Westerners do. You don’t have to always be talking. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit there and peaceably enjoy your coffee or tea with other people. (This is doubly true when you’re hanging out with a crazy person.)

I did want to interview him, though, assuming Sufian was right that he did not care much for Hamas. So I took out my notebook.

“What’s it like now that Hamas is in power?”

“Ramallah is nice, but business is not good,” he said. “It is zero. There is no money.”

“Who did you vote for?” I said.

“I voted for Fatah,” he said. “I’m not affiliated with them. They are just a good party to run things. I don’t think Hamas is ready for power. In some things I agree with Fatah, in some things I don’t. Even though they are corrupt, at least we had money. People are boycotting Hamas so now we are poor. We anticipate things will eventually get better, but we don’t have time.”

“Do you worry about Hamas making trouble for you?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I sell fashionable clothes. I’m not an expert on what Hamas wants, but they say they will not interfere with the life of the people. We will see.”

Lisa Goldman told me about a Palestinian town that had elected Hamas in the second-most recent election. (I do not recall the town’s name, and I did not write it down.) According to Lisa, Hamas micromanaged the town according to heavy-handed Islamist dogma. So in the most recent election the people of that town threw the thugs out and voted for secular Fatah instead. If Hamas knows what’s good for them (a dubious proposition, to be sure) they’ll keep their religious totalitarian impulses in check now that they've won.

“Should Hamas negotiate with the Israelis?” I said to Named.

“Ultimately they will go through the path of negotiation,” he said. “They will be strict at first because of the street, but they will loosen up.”

“What has changed since Hamas came to power?” I said.

“Business,” he said. “The economy dropped down dramatically. Without industry they cannot boost the economy. We import everything from China. We support Chinese workers. We need our own industry.”

“Did the intifada help or hurt the Palestinian cause?” I said.

“Both intifadas were created by the Israelis,” he said. “They fed it and benefited from it. It was very bad for us. Daily life changed. Roadblocks. Factories closed down. Officials lost their respect among us. They lie all the time and won’t help us.”

“Why did the intifada end?” I said.

“People lost the juice,” he said. “And there is no financial support.”

“How long will the war last?” I said.

“The Jews don’t want peace,” he said. “They want to kick us to Jordan. Some say the substitute country is Jordan. I was told by a friend of mine who works for the CIA that Jerusalem will be emptied of all young Palestinians. Only old people will remain.”

Who told you that?” I said.

“I can’t tell you his name,” he said. “He works for the CIA.

I couldn’t tell if he was making up nonsense or if he actually believed what he said.

“What do you think Arafat’s legacy will be?” I said. “How will he be remembered by the Palestinian people?”

“People used to love Yasser Arafat,” he said. “But those who were not financially supported by him did not trust his policy. Some idolized him. Others criticized him. He will be remembered as a symbolic hero but with no dimension to him.”

“Do you feel safe criticizing Hamas?” I said.

“Now you can say,” he said. “Maybe later on you cannot criticize him.”

*

What surprised me most about the relative dearth of political propaganda on display in Ramallah was the near-total absence of Yasser Arafat’s portrait anywhere. I saw only two faded posters on a single wall

Arafat Poster Ramallah.jpg

I also only saw one poster of Sheik Yassin, the “spiritual leader” of Hamas who was assassinated by the IDF in March 2004. I found him twisted and hanging from a gutter.

Yassin Poster Ramallah.jpg

Portraits of the relatively benign Mahmoud Abbas were more common though those, too, were rare. I found this one on the side of one of Fatah’s office buildings. (UPDATE: Nevermind, that isn't Abbas. He just looks a lot like him.)

Abbas Poster Ramallah.jpg

Hezbollah has turned their little corner of Lebanon into a gigantic outdoor museum for their psychotic propaganda. But Hamas doesn’t seem to be interested. Here is the only violent poster I saw in all of Ramallah.

Gunman Poster Ramallah.jpg

Sufian took me to the Palestinian Legislative Council when parliament was in session. Two armed guards stopped us at the top of the driveway. Sufian talked our way past them in just a few seconds. Once past the guards were we able to walk right in and sit down.

I found a seat in the back, flipped open my notebook, and snapped two quick pictures.

PLC 1.jpg

PLC 2.jpg

Not one minute later everyone abruptly stood up. Most headed straight for the door. I came in literally at the last minute. Which was perfect.

A few parliamentarians gathered their things and lingered in small groups. I recognized some of them instantly - Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erekat.

Ashrawi in PLC.jpg

I walked toward Erekat and snapped a quick photo of the now-famous picture of Marwan Barghouti, former leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, being led away in handcuffs by the IDF for the murder of Israeli civilians. A Fatah member of parliament kept it displayed on the long table in front of his seat.

Barghouti Picture in PLC.jpg

Erekat is one of the more honorable politicians in the Palestinian Authority. He was certainly more worth talking to than some of the fanatical bearded Hamas goons lurking around who seemed to deliberately avoid making eye contact with me. So I buttonholed him and asked for an interview.

“I can give you five minutes,” he said. “But you’ll first have to wait. I need to meet someone first.”

So I sat down with Qays Abdul Karim Abu Laila of the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The DFLPers have a crackpot ideology, but to their credit they insist Palestinians should only fight Israeli soldiers, and that Palestinians should only fight Israeli soldiers in Palestine. Israeli civilians are to be left alone. The DFLP won a whopping 3 percent of the vote.

“Did people vote for Hamas because they want to keep fighting Israelis?” I said.

“Not more than 20 percent voted for Hamas because they refuse to negotiate,” he said. “A majority of Palestinians, at least 80 percent, support a 1967 border solution.”

I thought you’d have to be a sucker to believe that. And as Lisa Goldman and Allison Kaplan Sommer told me, Israeli voters base their foreign policy opinions on the premise Don’t Be a Sucker.

Still. Two months ago the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research reported that:
75% say that Hamas should engage Israel in peace negotiations. 64% identify themselves as supporters of the peace process and only 14% say they are opposed to the peace process. 53% want the newly elected authority to implement the Road Map and 49% want it to collect arms from the armed factions while 21% do not want it to interfere in the arms of the factions and 27% say the PA should enact laws that allow the factions to keep their arms.
Popular Palestinian opinion is crazily contradictory and all over the place. Here’s a poll from a year ago that shows support for Hamas increased at the same time support for suicide-bombing declined. In just the last three years the overwhelming majority of Palestinians supported suicide-bombing at some times and at other times overwhelmingly opposed suicide-bombing. Oddly enough, Palestinian support for terrorism against Israelis was higher when Hamas was out of power than it is now. At least according to PCPSR’s ongoing polls.

“Why did Fatah lose the election then?” I asked Abu Laila.

“Monopoly of power, corruption, and chaos were motives for many,” he said. “Hamas seemed the most competent alternative. Only 13 percent voted for their program. 50 percent or more voted against corruption.”

“Why did the intifada end?” I said.

Boy did he not like that question. He jerked his head backward and opened his eyes wide without blinking. I had the feeling no one had ever asked him that before. He seemed to have no idea what to say.

Finally he managed something.

“There was fatigue after four years of continuous confrontation with the Israeli occupation,” he said. “People want to breathe. The continuous struggle against the wall shows that the intifada as a mass movement is still going, even if relaxed.”

“Did the intifada help or hurt the Palestinian cause?” I said.

“Without the intifada,” he said, “there would be no international consensus about the need for a two-state solution.

So much for the DFLP’s opposition to terrorism against civilians inside Israel.

And I called bullshit. Every country in the world, aside from some of the rejectionist Islamic states, supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict long before the second intifada broke out. I reminded him of what he knew perfectly well already, that Bill Clinton spent years trying to get Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak to agree to a deal.

“It was obvious that Clinton’s negotiations were not official,” he said. “It was only an attempt to bridge the two parties. It wasn’t until Bush supported a Palestinian state in 2002 that it became the US official policy.”

It's true that George W. Bush said the words “Palestinian” and “state” together in the same publicly uttered sentence before Bill Clinton did. But Abu Laila had to know that was a full-of-crap answer, that Bill Clinton was perfectly serious when he spent years trying to get the Palestinians a state of their own.

“Are you glad Ariel Sharon, due to his stroke, is no longer prime minister?” I said.

“No,” he said. “I’m not glad. I don’t celebrate the unfortunate illness of any human being. His absence will cause long-term changes in Israel’s image and attitudes. Olmert will have to cope with those realities.”

“Was he better or worse than you thought he would be when he was first elected?” I said.

“Sharon was worse than expected,” he said. “He based his policy on the military option instead of engagement.” He expected something else?

“Do you feel the Arab countries have betrayed the Palestinians?” I said. “They are treated like animals in Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria.”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I wouldn’t say Arab governments are innocent. They are not doing what they should do. It is below the capacities that they have. Still, Israelis are the main enemy and the main source of suffering.”

“But Palestinians are treated worse by Lebanese than they are by Israelis,” I said. “Do you know about the conditions in refugee camps like Ein El Helwe?”

“They are not treated worse in Lebanon,” he said. “That is not possible.”

I blinked at him.

“I have seen these places myself,” I said. “The conditions there are vastly worse than they are here in Ramallah. It’s impossible to even compare them.”

“Here a pregnant woman cannot get to a hospital because of the checkpoints,” he said.

It’s possible the Palestinians in the West Bank have no idea how bad the refugee camps in other countries really are. Or they are so consumed with their own problems that they just don’t care. I do not know.

I’ll say this, though: Those refugee camps in Lebanon have been there for more than 50 years. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon are not allowed to live anywhere else unless they are Christian. (They aren’t really “camps,” by the way. They are urban, and they are sub-Dickensian slums.) And until last year, vehicles entering the camps were searched by the Lebanese army. Building materials were confiscated. The Lebanese didn’t want the Palestinians to get, you know, the wrong idea. If you want to know what those places are like, just imagine the worst slums you’ve ever seen. Then subtract all the modern building materials. Unspeakable doesn’t even begin to describe them.

Last year I interviewed Mohammad Afif. He sits on Hezbollah’s Political Bureau. I haven’t mentioned this until now because he has almost nothing to say but Hezbollah cliches. But he did say one interesting thing as a pre-emptive rebuttal to Abu Laila.

He told me I should visit Sabra and Chatilla and see how Palestinians in Lebanon live. I told him I already had, that it was clear to me that Palestinians are treated worse by Lebanese than they are by Israelis. He was stunned that I dared say that to him. But he quickly composed himself and said “Yes, you are right. I am sorry about that.”

Congregating in PLC.jpg

I did get to talk to Saeb Erekat briefly before he left the building. Sufian told me Palestinians nicknamed him The Penguin. Why? Because he looks a lot like one.

“Why did Hamas win?” I said.

“Two things,” he said. “Our mistakes and Israeli unilateralism.” He spoke quickly and confidently in perfect crisp English. He didn’t sound so much like he had rehearsed his answers (although he probably had), but more like a man who was sure he was right and believed what he said.

“What are you in Fatah going to do now that you’ve lost?” I said. “How will you win the next election?”

“We’re rebuilding from scratch,” he said. “We need soul searching, reform, and new faces. This movement has had the same faces for 41 years. We need change. And we’re willing to take responsibility.”

“Why did the intifada end?” I said. The question didn’t phase him like it did Abu Laila.

“I don’t know,” he said. “And I don’t care. I’m just glad it’s over. Hopefully it ended out of an understanding that it was bad. I condemned every single attack.”

“What do you think was the biggest Palestinian mistake since the Oslo peace process began?” I said.

“We were unsuccessful in terms of transparency and accountability,” he said. “We could have done it. But we failed. That’s why Hamas won. We should have been tough on people who abused their offices.”

“What was the biggest Israeli mistake since Oslo?” I said.

“The motto of No Sacred Dates,” he said. “Each time they had a date-based obligation, they didn’t do it. They kept building settlements.”

“Why is a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank such a big problem for Palestinians?” I said. “Would you rather the Israelis stay?”

“The problem with unilateralism is the outcome of it,” he said. “The Israelis will get everything they want without negotiation.” Palestinians should have thought of that, then, before electing people who say negotiation is treason. “The net result will be more bloodshed. We all know the outcome will be a two-state solution.”

“Yes,” I said. “Everyone knows there will be two states in the end. So why is it taking so long?”

“I founded the Palestinian peace camp in 1979,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

“I am against suicide bombing morally, not politically,” he said.

“How many Palestinians agree with you about that?” I said.

“Few,” he said. “Very few.” He said this inside the Palestinian Legislative Council within earshot of his colleagues, many of whom speak English and could hear him perfectly well. “We have to keep working,” he said and gently put his hand on my shoulder. “It is difficult in this environment.”

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. I would do this for free if I could. But I can't. Thank you all so much for your help so far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 19, 2006 12:45 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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