Is Ramallah’s economic boom a sign of progress or surrender?
Photo courtesy Dorota H.
To make the ten mile trip from Jerusalem into Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian West Bank, one must pass through Qalandia checkpoint, a forbidding concrete apparatus with a tall gray watchtower—the very embodiment of Michel Foucault’s Panopticon—from which an Israeli soldier peers down on Palestinians as they come and go. The checkpoint is flanked on either side by Israel’s security wall, meant to deter Palestinian suicide bombers from crossing into Israel. The wall looks like the sound barriers that border American highways; in portions it is topped by looping concertina wire and painted with political graffiti—images of the late Palestinian founding father Yasser Arafat and his jailed comrade Marwan Barghouti.
On the other side of the checkpoint, in Ramallah, the rumble of jackhammers and bulldozers fills the air. Every block in Ramallah seems to be under renovation, as if the city’s 40 thousand inhabitants decided to rebuild the city at once, rising collectively from the ashes of the second intifada to erect a new façade. Ramallah’s half-built edifices are easy to confuse with the battle-torn structures of the past; those crumbled buildings sprout tubes of bent rebar and seem to populate the city in equal volume.
Downtown, Ramallah is bustling. Fruit and vegetable vendors hawk Israeli carrots, dates, tangerines, and eggplants. Coffee sellers with red fezzes on their heads pour Arabic coffee from elaborate silver vessels. Teenage girls peruse shop windows.
Downtown, Ramallah is bustling. The city’s commercial and geographical center is shaped like a starfish, with five arteries meeting at Al Manara square, a plaza surrounded by four concrete lions, each said to represent one of the families who originally settled the city. Every day, the city’s population more than doubles in size; villagers from the surrounding area arrive to buy and sell goods. Fruit and vegetable vendors—mostly young men from northern Palestine—hawk Israeli carrots, dates, tangerines, and eggplants. Coffee sellers with red fezzes on their heads pour Arabic coffee from elaborate silver vessels. Teenage girls peruse shop windows. Money-changers shift eagerly outside of a juice bar, and buses and shared taxi cabs roll in and out of the central station.
Across town, in the city’s diplomatic district, is Ramallah’s first five-star hotel, the $42.6 million Mövenpick Hotel Ramallah, which opened less than two years ago. Operated by a Swiss company with outposts in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the Mövenpick is meant to look like the ancient walled city of Jerusalem, with a cylindrical white stone turret topped by ornamental notches. The hotel hosts some of Ramallah’s high profile businessmen, like the CEO of Wataniya Mobile, a Qatari-funded telecommunications company that recently opened shop in Palestine.
Nearby are Palestine’s first Curves, an American-brand fitness center for women, its first bowling alley, and its first sushi restaurant, all inside the Caesar Hotel. The owner, Jamal Nimer, is also financing the construction of Ramallah’s tallest building, a twenty-five-story Days Inn. Just north of the city is one of Palestine’s major investments. The Palestine Investment Fund—the government’s sovereign wealth fund—recently broke ground on the $400 million Ersal Center, slated to hold another five-star hotel, several high-end condominiums, a shopping center, two banks, and Palestine’s first national park. “The Ersal Center,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is quoted as saying in the project’s brochure, “is a beacon of economic revival in Palestine.”
The city’s last economic surge occurred in 1993 when the Oslo Accords galvanized Palestinian state building efforts. What is different about today’s rush of economic activity–which began around 2008 and has intensified since, and which I witnessed first hand when I visited a year and a half ago–is that it is occurring independently of any political agreement with Israel for Palestinian independence. Ramallah is a cosmopolitan city, in an entity without borders or currency, a burgeoning metropolis adrift in the murkiest of political waters.
Ramallah is the de facto capital of Palestine, but beneath that, it is something else: a place to pretend that one is no longer Palestinian.
There is no simple explanation for Ramallah’s economic crescendo; Palestinian economists, businessmen, and commentators speculate that many factors are at play. First and foremost, Israel has eased restrictions on the movement of people and goods throughout the West Bank by lifting checkpoints and roadblocks. A pledged $7.4 billion uptick in foreign aid spurred the Palestinian government to spend on a series of ambitious infrastructure projects, helmed by the internationally popular Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Reforms in the Palestinian banking sector freed up capital for small business loans. And relative political calm encouraged private investment. The international press called the resulting phenomenon—a proliferation of luxury cars, condominiums, new businesses, pre-planned neighborhoods, and the creation of two new private equity funds—the “Ramallah boom.”
Both Fayyad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made Palestinian revival a major facet of their national plans, calling economic growth a prerequisite to Palestinian statehood. But the growth has yet to spread beyond Ramallah. Even in the city, the plan has only mixed support.
Some Palestinians see the boom as a perversion of the Palestinian independence movement, an indication that the government has given up its political program in favor of meaningless economic reforms.
Some Palestinians see the boom as a perversion of the Palestinian independence movement, an indication that the government has given up its political program in favor of meaningless economic reforms. Forty-four years into the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with a peace plan nowhere in sight, the Ramallah boom looks more like an attempt to placate a battle-worn Palestinian populace than to prepare for its independence. “It is a five-star occupation,” a skeptical Palestinian businessman named Sam Bahour told me. “It gives the impression to the outside world that everything is OK in Palestine.”
Others disagree. Palestine Investment Fund CEO Mohammad Mustafa sees the Ramallah boom as an example of Palestinian economic prowess under the constraints of the Israeli occupation. Since the Israeli government controls Palestinian borders, airspace, and water, Ramallah’s new façade is a taste of what the Palestinians might do if they could grow their economy unencumbered. “If the occupations goes away, we can do anything,” Mustafa said. “We can be like Dubai, like New York, like Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, or like Istanbul.”
Jihad Al Wazir, head of the Palestinian central bank, shares this more optimistic view. “To be a Palestinian is to be like Sisyphus,” he said. “You push the stone to the top of the mountain and it goes back down. Up and down and up and down. Now we are very close to the top. Will the Israelis allow us to have a state and put the boulder on top or will they let it roll back down?”
Long before Ramallah became “the first Palestinian metropolis,” as Birzeit University sociologist Lisa Taraki calls it, the city was a small, inconsequential village, battered about by the historical winds that shaped the Holy Land.
Ramallah was permanently settled by a pair of brothers named Rashed and Sabra Haddadeen, sometime in the sixteenth century. The two were Christian landowners; they fled their home in Transjordan after a bloody feud with a powerful Muslim leader. They arrived in Palestine and set up an encampment on a hill—Ramallah. Rashed eventually returned to Transjordan, but his five sons stayed, making up the city’s five original families.
Over the next several hundred years, Ramallah’s population grew. A group of Quakers visiting from Britain opened two schools in Ramallah—one for girls and one for boys—establishing the city as an academic hub in greater Palestine. In the early twentieth century, the region came under British control. In the 1940s, Ramallah became home to Palestinian refugees who fled what is now Israel in the war for a Jewish state.
In 1967, Israel wrested control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from Jordan and Egypt, integrated Palestinian workers into the Israeli economy, flooded the Palestinian market with Israeli goods, and planted Israeli settlements in the territories. Twenty years later, Ramallah residents—along with scores of others across the Palestinian territories—rose up against the Israeli occupation. The first intifada lasted six years and left nearly 200 Israelis dead, more than one thousand Palestinians dead, and many more Palestinians imprisoned.
But the first intifada also gave way to the event that would change life in Ramallah forever: a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The 1993 Oslo Accords were meant to create a framework for a Palestinian state that would finally put an end to the longstanding conflict with Israel. The Oslo Accords provided some degree of economic freedom to the Palestinian government—allowing it to create a monetary authority and to impose taxes on its citizens—but Israel maintained control over the borders, collecting taxes on items headed to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The agreement required Israel to distribute these revenues to the Palestinian government, but it withheld them when politically expedient.
Still, Palestinians living abroad—many of whom made good money in America—saw the Oslo Accords as an opportunity to return to the territories and build their state. Ramallah was one of the few areas where Palestinians could build without Israeli permission. And build, they did. Downtown Ramallah bloomed with restaurants and shops. Palestinians established the first telecommunications company, Paltel, which today employs some three thousand people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The first Palestinian radio and TV stations began broadcasting there. Ramallah embodied the dream of statehood, Palestine’s first cosmopolitan city, its first taste of normal life after years of ambiguity and violence.
But the dream imploded seven years after the Oslo Accords. Disillusionment with the slow-moving peace process—and the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a right-wing extremist—led to the second intifada, a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel’s major cities.
The Israeli military retaliated with raids and curfews. In the West Bank in 2002 there was a hundred-day curfew, punctuated by daily reprieves during which Palestinians could shop for groceries or run other errands. Economic activity in Ramallah largely stopped. The Israeli military tore through the city in its search for Palestinian militants, leaving a trail of utter devastation in its wake: bashed windows, cracked doors, toppled chairs, and bullet-ridden walls.
The fact that Ramallah rose so rapidly only to be torn down within a matter of months had a disquieting effect on the city’s residents. Many people in Ramallah see the city’s current economic spurt as ephemeral in nature; to live a prosperous life in Ramallah is to be in constant fear of what might be lost. “Israel can turn this boom into misery in twenty-four hours,” Dr. Samir Abdullah, an economist with the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, told me. Today, the possibility of economic renewal under Israeli occupation inspires a mix of reactions in Ramallah’s residents: guilt for leading a better life than those outside the city, denial that the growth exists, and even fear that it is part of some vast conspiracy to keep the Palestinians quiet. “We feel like there is a plan to bring money into Palestine,” Nada Ennab, a twenty-one-year-old cashier at a Ramallah coffee shop told me. With their new-found wealth, she feared, “people will start neglecting the political issues.”
The second intifada forced Palestinians to probe their feelings about economic growth under occupation. But it also—counter-intuitively—planted the seeds for the Ramallah boom. As Israel closed off the West Bank border in an effort to deter suicide bombers, East Jerusalem—once a vibrant market for Palestinian goods—became isolated from other Palestinian cities. According to a 2010 report in the Jerusalem Post, more than a hundred Palestinian businesses relocated from East Jerusalem to Ramallah. Many Palestinian aid organizations based in Jerusalem engaged in a similar migration. And individuals who had once commuted from Gaza to Ramallah for work ended up relocating their families to Ramallah when the Israeli closures made the trek impossible. Ramallah was expanding in spite of its wounds.
Sam Bahour moved to Ramallah in 1994 with the flood of expats who came back in the wake of the Oslo Accords. Born in Ohio, Bahour was instrumental in bringing the first telecommunications company, PalTel, and the first chain of Western style grocery stores, Bravo, to the West Bank. But he soured on the idea of development as the years dragged on and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew ever more intractable. He likes to tell his personal story of trying to obtain Palestinian citizenship—he spent his first fifteen years in Palestine with a tourist visa that forced him to leave and come back every three months—as an example of the way that Israel controls the day to day lives of Palestinians, even wealthy ones like himself. Everything seems fine in Ramallah, Bahour once told me, but consider the fact that no one in the city can go to the beach for a vacation without getting permission.
In Bahour’s eyes, the Ramallah boom should be considered nothing more than a flurry of “economic activity”—not to be confused with real economic development—a series of projects to increase employment in the region and keep Palestinian youth from leaving to seek better lives overseas. For him, it’s not a state building effort, and it has nothing to do with the peace process. Before we met in Ramallah, I asked him on the telephone about Bravo, which had recently opened its tenth supermarket in Nablus, a town north of Ramallah. “How is this news?” Bahour asked me, his voice elevating. “There is this artificial pumping up of every small economic activity here, so that the opening up of a supermarket becomes a major news story.”
Nonetheless, when I arrived in Ramallah in December 2010, I asked Bahour to take me to the first Bravo store one afternoon. The grocery store is located inside of the Plaza Shopping Center, a mall on the outskirts of the city. Bahour had a hand in the construction of the mall and later managed it for the Arab-Palestinian Shopping Centers Company, a subsidiary of one of Palestine’s largest investment groups.
Bahour, who is in his late forties, is a very tall man with a closely cropped ring of hair around his bald head. Unlike most businessmen in Ramallah, he dresses casually in slacks and a button-down shirt, a leather jacket zipped over his imposing belly. Bahour ushered me inside the mall and told me to look at the ceiling, a series of curved metal planks that looked like the roof of a barn. When Bahour bought the roof from Jordan, he asked the company that sold it to him to send along a team of engineers to assemble it; this was the first time such a ceiling had been used in a commercial, rather than an industrial, setting. “After the intifada, the Israelis refused to give the Jordanian installers visas, so the product reached us and no one knew how to install it.” The Jordanians faxed directions to Bahour’s engineers in Ramallah, guiding them over the phone. The mall was finally completed in 2003.
Then Bahour brought me into Bravo. “For you and I, this is not going to be a groundbreaking experience,” he said as we walked into the brightly lit store. He was right. The shop looked like any other grocery store I had been to in America and like several I had seen in Israel—wide aisles for carts, produce displays lining the periphery, and a separate small bakery. “When I came in 1994, the traditional way of shopping in Palestine was to go to multiple stores,” he said. “You go to a butcher, you go to a chicken store, you go to the nuts store, you go to the roaster.” But he figured that the burgeoning expat community that had returned with Oslo would appreciate this one-stop-shop and its curious Western particularities, like frozen food.
Bahour showed me around Bravo, and he pointed to a shelf of Palestinian products—mainly olive oil and olives in small, nondescript jars. Before he opened the store, a group of activists contacted Bahour and implored him to carry exclusively Palestinian products. “They said, ‘Listen, you are building a landmark economic project and you can take a stand by refusing to hold any Israeli products, period,’” he recalled. “Remember, this was the intifada and things were tense. We had already decided not to hold settlement products. But as long as the market as a whole is trading in Israeli products, we thought we would not be able to stay in business if we didn’t have Israeli products.”
Bahour deliberately placed Palestinian products next to similar Israeli ones so that the customer could choose between the two. Bahour pointed to a package of frozen peas and carrots from Israel, wrapped in a shiny plastic bag with bright Hebrew lettering. Next to it was the Palestinian equivalent, a sad looking transparent pouch of frost-bitten vegetables with washed-out Arabic writing. “It is good for me that Palestinian suppliers see their products next to more mature products so they can develop quicker,” he said. “You can see that some of them have a way to go.”
On opening day, the mall was so crowded that Bahour rented out an additional parking lot to accommodate all of the visitors. At first, it seemed that Bahour had done the impossible—here was a success story in the midst of the second intifada. But the project was not immune to the violence that engulfed Ramallah in that period. At one point, Israeli soldiers used the grocery store as a detention center for suspected Palestinian militants.
“When we first opened,” Bahour said, “a woman thanked me and said, ‘Here I feel normal.’ That makes me feel very proud.”
Bahour told me that soldiers rifled through his home on two occasions. During the intifada, it was common for Israeli soldiers to set up temporary bases in homes throughout different neighborhoods. Some soldiers used the homes of people who were out of town, but other times they asked the families to remain cordoned in a single room for the duration of their stay. Bahour said that his neighbor’s home was picked as an outpost for a week, and so the soldiers searched his house—once early in the morning and once at night—to make sure the block was free of fighters. Sometimes the soldiers cleaned up after themselves when the surveillance period was over, but others left Palestinian homes in disarray. Bahour said that one friend—another high profile businessman—found a smear of human feces when he opened the lid of his copy machine.
Bahour originally planned to replicate the Plaza mall in every governorate in the West Bank. But the Arab-Palestinian Shopping Centers Company halted the project at the height of the intifada. Disgusted, Bahour left the company.
“But is the establishment of a grocery store a big step forward for our state? I don’t think it is. A big step forward would be to have a port at our sea in Gaza, to have our own airport, to have control of our borders, to have the ability to freely trade.”
“I wasn’t going to wait until the political crisis ended.” When the company resumed construction, it placed several freestanding grocery stores around the West Bank. The reproduction of a full mall would have been too risky.
“I will always remember when we first opened,” he said. “A traditionally dressed woman came and thanked me and said, ‘The reason I like it is, when I bring my kids, here I feel normal.’ What we were trying to do is bring some sense of normalcy to a beaten and battered people. That makes me feel very proud. But is the establishment of a grocery store a big step forward for our state? I don’t think it is. A big step forward would be to have a port at our sea in Gaza, to have our own airport, to have control of our borders, to have the ability to freely trade. Those are the tools for state building.”
Bahour told me that I had to leave Ramallah in order to understand the reality of the Palestinian economy. So one Friday morning in January 2011, I hopped into a servees—the Palestinian term for a shared taxi—and made my way to a city called Jenin in the northern West Bank.
Jenin is home to one of the region’s largest refugee camps, a city in and of itself of ten thousand people, mostly individuals whose families fled Haifa after the 1948 War. The refugee camp is known in greater Palestine as the “martyr’s capital” because during the second intifada, it produced more than two dozen suicide bombers.
Jenin was eerily quiet when I arrived. I suspected that this was because it was Friday, the Muslim day of rest. Bahour was right—the city looked nothing like Ramallah. Or, better yet, it looked like Ramallah would if it were completely stripped of these years of development. Here were the same crumbling grayish brown buildings, the same haphazard streets, and a rickety bus station connecting Jenin to the greater West Bank. Jenin is the same size as Ramallah—it has around 39 thousand people—but it boasts none of the hotels, fitness centers, or shimmering office buildings that mark Ramallah as a commercial center.
I took a taxi into Jenin’s refugee camp, which is administered by the United Nations, and walked around. The streets were nearly empty but for a few old men shuffling around in slippers, one of them missing an eye. I could hear the voices of children from inside some of the dilapidated gray homes; there were posters of child martyrs everywhere.
I walked to the Freedom Theater, a small community theater founded by a film actor named Juliano Mer-Khamis to provide a creative outlet for the camp’s youth. The son of a Palestinian father and a Jewish Israeli mother, Mer-Khamis lived in the camp with his pregnant wife and their child.
I knocked on the theater’s door and Mer-Khamis invited me in for lunch with his students, who were in the midst of rehearsing for Alice in Wonderland. A handsome, gray-haired man with a booming voice, Mer-Khamis dominated the room like a taskmaster, ordering the students to bring out plates of pita and hummus and clean them up just as quickly. I sat down with him and told him that I was visiting from Ramallah. He snorted, saying he wished that he were in Ramallah. Jenin, it seemed, had been unkind to the Freedom Theater. A gang of boys had condemned the Freedom Theater in the past, throwing Molotov cocktails at the door. Now they were after the city’s one youth hostel, an old converted church adjacent to a cinema. For the past two nights, Mer-Khamis said, the young men had lobbed more Molotovs at the hostel, leaving a scathing note.
Less than three months later, I would learn, Mer-Khamis was shot five times by a masked gunman outside of the theater. He was buried on the other side of the border, at an Israeli kibbutz.
Next I went to Jerusalem, to see what had become of the holy city that Palestinians so cherished as their would-be capital. Some Palestinian activists believed that the Palestinian Authority had symbolically ceded Jerusalem by building up the city of Ramallah, which serves as the West Bank’s administrative capital. When Al Jazeera published the “Palestine Papers,” a trove of secret documents revealing that in 2008 the Palestinian negotiating team offered to cede large tracts of East Jerusalem, it seemed to confirm their fears. So, too, did the Palestinian Authority’s decision to consolidate its offices in a sparkling $40 million facility in Ramallah.
I was in Jerusalem for not ten minutes before stumbling upon a picture of Palestinian collapse. A crowd of journalists had gathered outside of the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem where dozens of Palestinians have been evicted from their homes in recent years. A large yellow crane was slowly carving away the top of the hotel, knocking off sand-colored bricks and sprinkling passersby with a fine layer of dust. As chunks of the building fell to the ground, a photographer ran across the street to snap a photo of the building. An oncoming bus filled with women in hijab slowed in front of the demolition.
The hotel—a symbol of Palestinian nationalism—was originally built as a residence for the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a man named Haj Amin Al-Husseini who famously led several uprisings against Jewish immigration to British Palestine in the 1920s and ’30s and who met with Hitler to ask for his help in blocking the creation of a Jewish state. Though Husseini never lived there—he transferred the property to his secretary, George Antonius—some Israelis and American Jews saw the hotel as an incarnation of anti-Semitism. In 1985 the hotel was purchased by Irving Moskowitz, a Florida millionaire, with the intent of turning it and several other East Jerusalem properties into Jewish housing complexes. After years of wrangling between Moskowitz and the Jerusalem municipality, Moskowitz was granted permission to build last year.
As the crane bit deeper into the building, construction workers began stapling plastic partitions to a chain link fence surrounding the hotel, obscuring the view of the demolition. By mid morning, East Jerusalem’s dignitaries and activists had arrived: a teary Dyala Husseini, descendent of the grand mufti, Adnan Husseini, the beleaguered and politically powerless Palestinian-appointed Governor of Jerusalem, Itamar Haritan, a clean-shaven Israeli peacenik, Nasser Ghawi, the unofficial spokesman for the evicted families of Sheikh Jarrah, and Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, the current mufti of Jerusalem, looking not unlike his antecedent in a traditional white, flat-topped hat.
I approached Dyala, who looked like a bit like Jackie Onassis, wrapped in a long beige coat with a pair of large black sunglasses perched on her face. She was so choked up she could barely speak, and kept apologizing as the words came out. “We know that we can live with the Israelis. But they don’t care,” she said. “Israel wants to empty Jerusalem of the Palestinians.”
When I returned to Ramallah, I visited the opulent Mövenpick Hotel, its notched stone turret designed to mimic Jerusalem’s hallowed white walls. Here was the oasis within the oasis, the very development that had earned Ramallah its nickname as the “five-star occupation.”
I walked through the Mövenpick’s sliding glass doors and headed up the marble steps into the main hall. There was a photo of Yasser Arafat on the wall. He was wearing his signature keffiyeh, wiry hair sprouting higgledy-piggledy across the lower half of his face. This was clearly a photo taken in old age, when the intifada had worn his spirits to a nub. The way the photo was positioned, Arafat seemed to be staring with utter disdain at a string of decorative glass balls that cascaded from the ceiling of the Mövenpick.
The photo of Yasser Arafat, in fact, was the Mövenpick’s only reminder of the Palestinian dream of statehood, and really, of Palestine at all. The hotel had the effect of making the Israeli occupation vanish completely. I could have been in Abu Dhabi. I could have been in Tel Aviv.
But perhaps that was the allure of the Mövenpick, and the secret to the Ramallah boom. The Ramallah boom—which had perplexed and delighted and angered so many people in this tiny, contested strip of land—was the only instance of Westernized, highbrow normalcy in the whole of Palestinian life. Ramallah is the de facto capital of Palestine, but beneath that, it is something else: a place to pretend that one is no longer Palestinian.
I thought back to the demolition of the Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem. Standing there, coated in dust, I turned to Dyala Husseini, who was watching one of her great family’s relics disappear before her eyes. I asked her what she made of Ramallah’s expansion.
“We go to Ramallah to breathe,” she said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the deputy culture editor at The Forward. A longer version of this story won the best thesis prize for master’s of arts candidates in journalism at Columbia University in 2011. Her work has appeared in alternative newsweeklies in Colorado Springs, Denver, Dallas and Salt Lake City and on Salon.com.