“This place wants to be the new Dubai,” a friend once told me of Ramallah, Palestine’s de facto capital on the West Bank. He was only half-joking. A new Ramallah is quickly emerging from its dusty past. Shiny skyscrapers are everywhere, surrounded by swimming pools. In the cafés, students smoke shisha and eat chocolate cake. Middle-class ladies meander through the supermarkets and pick up European cheese for supper. A cultural center screens Palestinian films. On Fridays, men in crumpled white shirts go to the bars and drink beer. Women in high heels watch them and snigger.
Of course, it’s not all like this. Another Ramallah exists, too. It is covered in potholes. Its streets are lined by disused wheelbarrows and stray cats. There are unpainted apartment buildings and furniture shops selling brown leather chairs in plastic sheeting. Green bins filled with uncollected trash sit outside. There are refugee camps in this Ramallah. Kids play soccer in the alleyways in front of murals depicting women moaning for their dead children.
There are slums like this all over the West Bank. But Ramallah is different. Here, the squalor is in stark relief to the elegant cafés nearby. Just as well: its leaders aspire to shape the town into a glistening new capital. But bound up with arguments over sovereignty and territorial control, the issue of a Palestinian capital is a seemingly intractable one. In their hearts, many Ramallans have never warmed to the place. For them, Jerusalem will always be the Palestinian capital, and no number of new skyscrapers will change that.
These tensions are relatively new. A hundred years ago, Ramallah was a dozy uncle of a town. A mukhtar—the local village chief appointed by the Ottomans—kept order. People split their time between their fields and their church: before the 1950s, most Ramallans were Christian. Elegant townhouses, the color of dry chickpeas, watched over chicken coops and lines of olive trees. There were few outsiders except for earnest Protestant missionaries. In 1889, the Quakers opened the Friends School. It is still the best school in Palestine.
Ramallah at sunset. Photo by: Andrew Turner
The catastrophes of the 20th century mangled old Ramallah. Thousands of refugees come from the coast in 1948 after the establishment of Israel. Concrete breezeblock camps were built to house them. In 1967, the population was 13,000. Now, it’s 57,000. During the Second Intifada, in the early 2000s, Israel occupied the city. Local infrastructure, already wheezing from the swell of new arrivals, collapsed. In retaliation for militant suicide bombings, Israel launched airstrikes against the town. Schools and offices were smashed. Power outages were common.
Things are better now. The Israeli army left, and investors have returned. Cheap loans let people enjoy luxury goods. At one point, economic growth reached 8 percent per year. With new economic opportunities, Ramallah has pecked away at its past. Hundreds of old houses have been demolished. In their place are new flats with marble façades and basement garages. They hug the scrabbly hillsides around town.
This energy is also political. Since 1994, the Palestinian Authority—the West Bank’s governing body, dominated by the secular Fatah party—has positioned Ramallah as its de facto capital, although it is mostly administrated by Israeli troops. The P.A. has herded the town towards official respectability, while Hamas, their Islamist rivals in Gaza, huddle amid the ruins of Israeli airstrikes. There are internal political problems, too: different Fatah factions have been vying power for years. Internecine murders are common. P.A. repression, meanwhile, keeps a lid on civilian discontent.
It is easy to forget all this in Ramallah. Al-Masyoun, a neighbourhood popular with secret policemen, is a jumble of government ministries and fast-food restaurants. “The P.A. centers itself on Ramallah to receive structural and financial aid,” explains Noor Daghlas, a Palestinian student and political activist. “[The city] is under the eyes of the international community, which pours funds in here.” It does indeed: over the last two decades, the P.A. received around $25 billion from foreign donors. Yet the slime of corruption is here, too. In 2015, P.A. officials asked Bahrain for $4 million to build a new apartment complex in Ramallah. The money was funnelled into a wealthy Palestinian neighborhood to “resist” Israeli settlements.
There are benefits to this arrangement. Life can be comfortable here: 72 percent of Ramallans have access to computers, compared to 63 percent of all Palestinians. Ramallah has two of the West Bank’s three cinemas. The new Movenpick, shaped like a half-eaten sponge cake, is the poshest hotel in Palestine. Wealthy Ramallans go there for acupuncture sessions. Life is also more liberal in Ramallah: some young people use Tinder. “People in Ramallah can be themselves,” says Marah Abuzant, a recent arrival from the conservative town of Nablus. “Overall,” says Daghlas, “Ramallah is a bubble. And other Palestinians see it as an oasis in the desert—which it isn’t.”