As part of a work study tour, I spent a day in and around Ramallah. We visited a refugee camp, met with a high ranking Palestinian Authority minister, spoke to university students, and walked around downtown. Israelis are forbidden from travelling to Ramallah, and few tourists venture into the de facto Palestinian capital. The article and photos that follow share some of our experiences.
It’s only 22 kilometers between Jerusalem and Ramallah, but the two cities are worlds apart. We depart our Jerusalem hotel early in the morning and drive north. Thirty minutes later, we pass large red signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English stating, “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden. Dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law.”
A short while later we arrive at our first destination, the al-Am’ari refugee camp. Our group, a study tour of American academics, descends from the bus into the June heat. Just east of Ramallah, Am’ari is one of 19 refugee camps in the West Bank and is located in Area ‘A,’ under the control of the Palestinian Authority. In reality, the Palestinian government refuses to take responsibility or provide basic services for the camp’s 7,000 residents. As a result, it has become a hotbed of resentment toward Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
We enter the camp under a large archway with a key emblazoned on the sign, a symbol of the Palestinian desire to return to homes they left or were driven from in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The streets are teeming with garbage. Our guide explains that, until a few years ago, sewage ran through the streets. The Palestinian Authority refused to build sewage pipes, so the local counsel raised the money to install the pipes that we see running along the outside of the buildings. Some are noticeably cracked, and we are told that from time to time the pipes explode showering the narrow alleyways with raw sewage.
Our group steps gingerly around the piles of spoiled food and waste as we navigate twisting allies covered in graffiti and walls painted with giant keys. Above us are tattered strings of political pennants hanging between the cinder block buildings. The shutters of shops are papered in posters of “martyrs” killed while perpetrating terror attacks against Israelis.
A boy emerges from a passageway carrying an uncomfortably realistic toy gun. He raises it to eye level and fires a spray of pellets in our direction, hitting one of the women in the group. She rubs at the spot and insists that she is fine. The boy darts between us, retrieving pellets from the ground and proceeds to reload his gun and take aim once again at the group. Walking a bit faster, we continue through the camp’s narrow alleys, passing other boys clutching toy guns. Someone in the group wonders aloud how long it would be until the toy guns in their hands are real guns.
We leave the camp and drive the short distance to Ramallah. The contrast is striking. A prosperous cosmopolitan center, Ramallah is clean and contemporary, boasting museums, cultural centers and cafes. In the center of the city is “Stars & Buck,” a popular coffee shop with a striking resemblance to the iconic Seattle coffee chain.
We pull up at the office of the Palestine Olympic Committee, where we are scheduled to meet with Jibril Rajoub, the committee chairman. Rajoub is also Deputy Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee and a leading candidate to succeed 82-year-old Abbas.
Sitting at the head of a large conference room table, he speaks to our group about building trust between Israelis and Palestinians, the virtues of non-violent resistance, and encouraging the normalization of relations with Israel. This must be the optimistic stump speech he delivers to American groups, though he does liberally sprinkle his remarks with descriptions of the occupation as racist, fascist, a cancer and apartheid.
Members of the group ask Rajoub about his work with Palestinian sports teams, and whether there is a Palestinian winter Olympic team. I consider the room before raising my hand and asking about the ongoing payments by the Palestinian Authority to convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons.
Palestinian laws direct that Palestinians who are convicted of attacks in Israel are entitled to monthly “salaries.” The deadlier an attack, the more profitable the payout. In its 2016 budget, the Palestinian Authority allocated $140 million for payments to prisoners and $175 million for payments to the families of “martyrs.” These payments amount to roughly seven percent of the Palestinian Authority’s budget. Palestinian Media Watch reported that in 2017, the Palestinian Authority increased spending by 13% for salaries to terrorist prisoners and by 4% for payments to families of terrorist “martyrs.”
Momentarily taken aback by my question, Rajoub proceeds to yell that it is “a crazy question” and that his government had a “social responsibility” to support the 7,000 prisoners. He bangs his fist on the table and declares, “Of course we must pay. If we don’t pay, Iran will pay.” He eventually calms down and is about to move on, but pauses, stares at me down the length of the table and asks if I have another question.
Resisting the urge to shift in my seat, I ask how he can speak to us about non-violent resistance while simultaneously endorsing payments to terrorists. He again explodes with anger, banging the table, and railing at the “absurdity” of my question. When he is done, he recovers his good humor, and continues to take questions from the group.
One of the academics shares that we had come from the al-Am’ari refugee camp and he was disappointed to see the condition of the camp. He asks why the Palestinian Authority doesn’t assist the people living there. Rajoub dismisses the question saying, “What do you expect me to do about the refugees? It’s Netanyahu’s problem.”
Later that afternoon, we drive out of Ramallah and pass a stone memorial bifurcating a road leading into the valley below. The monument is fashioned into the expanse of land stretching between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, presumably reflecting the desired borders of a future Palestinian state. Etched into the monument is the face of 19-year-old Muhannad Halabi.
In October of 2015, Halabi went on a shooting and stabbing spree in Jerusalem, murdering Rabbi Nehemiah Lavi and Aharon Bennett, as they walked to the Western Wall. Halabi also stabbed Bennett’s wife, Adele, and their 2-year-old son, before he was shot and killed by Israeli police.
The monument on the side of the highway was commissioned by the municipality of Surda-Abu Qash, where Halabi had lived. Following the attack, the mayor described the slain terrorist as “a pride and badge of honor for the whole village.”
Shortly after the attack, Rajoub also honored Halabi by naming a sporting event after him. The banner at the event read: “Under patronage of the leader Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestine Olympic Committee. Palestine Cup – Martyr Muhannad Halabi Table Tennis Tournament 2015.”
Halabi’s attack helped catalyze the 2015-2016 wave of stabbings, shootings and car ramming attacks against Israelis. Those attackers and their families now receive payments from the Palestinian Authority. The cycle of incitement, terror, glorification, and reward continues unabated. So long as it does, the 22km between Jerusalem and Ramallah will remain a world apart.