The West Bank’s de facto capital has boomed in recent years, but still fails to inspire.
“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.
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.”
But for the wealthy, it really is an oasis. Just outside the town center is the Plaza Mall. Up an escalator is a fancy shop selling barbeques and plasma televisions, just like in Tel Aviv. Next door is a café: students wallow there all afternoon, taking selfies and flirting. The barista sells cappuccinos for double the normal price.
This bubble does not extend to everyone, however. The refugee camps slump by the road, as they have for decades, due to Israeli policy blocking refugees from returning to their old homes. In Amari, a refugee camp near Al-Masyoun, many residents suffer from lung disease and are unable to work. Israeli soldiers often enter the town. One evening last October, they detained Salah Khawaja, a prominent activist. Palestinian kids came out to protest. They burned tires and threw rocks. The soldiers replied with teargas. Later, troops raided the offices of a local charity. They took the safe, and left reams of documents on the floor. These incursions happen with frustrating regularity.
Israel’s disruptions extend to infrastructure as well. It has stopped Palestinians from using their own landfill sites. Disorganized trash fires are common, and stench of burning plastic is ubiquitous. Even the internet is affected: Israel bans fast mobile broadband for security reasons. Travelling to Ramallah is difficult, too. The road to Jerusalem is carved in half by a warren of checkpoints and chokes of barbed wire. A journey that should take twenty minutes can last hours. Palestinians going to Israel shuffle nose-to-neck through turnstiles and metal detectors. Passage is controlled by lights: red for stop, green for go. They seem to turn off and on at random. Even the guards on duty look bemused. They call out commands in lazy Arabic, then glance to their officers for advice.
For all its glitz, Ramallah is an uncomfortable, shifty city. “People feel like they’re handcuffed to Ramallah,” concedes Daghlas. “Ramallah is what maintains the illusion of the possibility of having peace with Israel and reaching a satisfying solution.” But with the camps, the brazen Israeli invasions, the general shabbiness: how can this illusion possibly be sustained? And always, peaking over the hills like shy children, are the Jewish settlements. They get closer every year. You can see one, Psagot, from the top of the Amari refugee camp at night. Some Israeli politicians have promised to annex Psagot—Palestinian land under international law—as soon as possible.
There is a more fundamental problem. The Palestinian Authority wants to mold Ramallah into a shining economic and political powerhouse. But Ramallah is not the political or cultural center of Palestine. Palestinians long for East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel since 1967. Jerusalem is everywhere in Ramallah, even though Israeli rules mean that many residents have never visited. Smudged photos of the city sit over the counters of most shops and cafés. In Amari’s guesthouse, on the back wall near the kitchen, is a painted mural of the Israeli separation barrier. The middle of the wall is ripped out. Beyond, is Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock, an important site for Palestinian Muslims, who believe it to be the site from which Mohammed ascended to heaven on a horse and spoke to God. The city is also important for Ramallan Christians: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was buried, is in Jerusalem.
The Holy City also exerts secular power. “Jerusalem has political power in the Arab world. It is iconic of Palestinian identity, like the Eiffel Tower in France,” says a local official who wishes to remain anonymous. This is unsurprising: heroes like Amin al-Husseini, the controversial father of Palestinian nationalism, were born in Jerusalem. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian military and political leader, grew up there. Things became even more intense after 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem. “Jerusalem is a symbol of Palestinian resistance to the occupation,” adds the official. On every street in Ramallah are posters of people “martyred” by Israel. They are always the same. The photos themselves are amateurish, probably grabbed from Facebook. But behind are shrieking flames and floating Kalashnikovs, and behind that, Jerusalem.
Ramallah’s ultimate fate may be decided elsewhere
Even the P.A., which has spent years and fortunes developing Ramallah, longs for Jerusalem. The new Yasser Arafat Museum, near Ramallah’s bus station, claims he was born in Jerusalem. In fact, he was born in Cairo. Next door, guarded by a pair of bored kids in oversized khaki uniforms, is his tomb. “We will continue on the path of the martyred President Yasser Arafat to be reburied in Jerusalem,” promised his successor when it was built. Down some stairs to the right of the mausoleum is an elegant new mosque. On the minaret is a laser that points towards Jerusalem.
But do the P.A. really want to reclaim Jerusalem? Daghlas thinks not. “The P.A. loves Ramallah. It wants to continue [the status quo].” The $1.75 million spent on Arafat’s tomb suggests he’s right. But most Palestinians feel differently. “Many people I’ve met seem to agree that Ramallah isn’t and never was a true capital,” says Daghlas. The anonymous official agrees. “Ramallah could be an administrative center,” he admits, “but there is only one political capital, occupied or not, and that’s Jerusalem.”
In any case, Ramallah’s ultimate fate may be decided elsewhere. In 1980, against U.N. resolutions, Israel passed a law stating that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” Since then, settlements have poked up like stubble all around East Jerusalem. January saw plans for 11,000 new homes announced in one week alone. About 40 percent of East Jerusalemites are now Jewish Israelis. Ramallans and their leaders can moan all they want, but East Jerusalem becomes less Palestinian every day.
Things might get worse. During his election campaign, Donald Trump promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. It’s currently in Tel Aviv, along with every other embassy in Israel. The international community refuses to accept Jerusalem as Israel’s capital until the U.N. splits the city fairly with the Palestinians. President Trump is now waffling on the issue. But his new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, already has an apartment in Jerusalem.
If the embassy did move, its symbolism would be clear: America is Israel’s firmest friend and biggest donor, and seeming to accept Jerusalem as its capital would send a strong message, one that would further boost Israeli extremists. The day after Trump’s victory, the far-right education minister Naftali Bennett remarked that “the era of a Palestinian state is over.” Since then, he and other Israeli politicians have made overtures toward annexing some or all of the West Bank. Trump must say “yes to an expanded Jerusalem,” demanded one.
Even Palestinians are not blind to this. “People are realizing that Jerusalem will never be our capital,” says Marah Abuzant. “But no one will say this out loud.” They may soon have to. A mile outside of town, on the road to Nablus, are the beginnings of a new Israeli settlement. It is only a few campervans and a scruffy dirt track. But it already has a bus-stop. Israeli troops guard it, leaning against their rifles and eyeing passing Palestinians. “They always start like this,” explains an acquaintance. “But soon they’ll build houses, and a proper road.” These are things many Palestinians will probably never get—in Ramallah, let alone Jerusalem.