Tag Archive | "Ramallah"

Arafat Mausoleum, Ramallah

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Meeting Fatah (Wednesday 8 February)

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

Previous: ‘Administrative detention’

On the trip, we were the fraternal guests of the Fatah political party, with whom we held several meetings in Ramallah. Fatah are secular nationalists, with Christians and Jews represented in its governing councils, and are therefore on the defensive in the politics of the Arab world, where Islamists seem to have all the momentum. In domestic ideology Fatah are social democrats. Fatah is a member party of the Socialist International and therefore has fraternal links with the British Labour Party, just as in Israel the Meretz Party do as a full member and the Labour Party do as an observer party. I had the feeling that Fatah, particularly its leaders such as Nabil Sha’ath, an impressive and charismatic man who would slot in naturally as a Foreign Minister or Prime Minister, are tired of the abnormal situation in Palestine.  They want to reach a position where politics is about the same sort of things it is about in most countries – taxation, public services and social justice. The party is not perfect by any means, but it is deserving of support, encouragement and engagement (the international community needs to show the moderates that they have friends) and it is the best hope of a better future in Palestine.

Fatah is a complex entity, a bit like the Sinn Fein of 1916-22 or even the democratic parties in the Weimar Republic which took politics to the streets. It is factionalised and it is operating in a violent political environment. Fatah is yet to have the Peter Mandelson red rose treatment. Its central organisations have rather old-fashioned names and it features crossed semi-automatic weapons on its emblem – although this is a bit reminiscent of the hard-line communist iconography one sees in symbols for pretty tame parties in Italy and France, who would probably not scare our own Liberal Democrats. Phases of its history are not particularly palatable, but one readily accepts ex-Communist parties in Eastern Europe as part of respectable politics, and Israel’s own leaders have in the past been part of unpleasant military actions (Rabin, Sharon) or outright terrorism (Shamir, Begin). Modern Fatah (‘New Fatah’ to continue the Mandelson metaphor) is an embattled social democratic party caught between the violent Islamists of Hamas and the intransigent right wing who currently run Israel. Its leaders seem to me to be regular, problem-solving politicians – in Thatcher’s terms ‘the sort of people I could do business with’ and here is the reason why I support their efforts and why they are having such difficulties. There needs to be a middle ground in which to operate, or a historic compromise between opposites, and it is hard to find either in Israel-Palestine.

I dislike Hamas. That much should be clear to all but the most deliberately obtuse reader already. Their ideology is extreme, violent and against personal freedom and proper social justice, and their tactics are not only counterproductive but morally wrong. Fatah supporters in Palestine think this too, and are all the more aware of it because they face the possibility of living under Hamas government. But making peace, it should be absolutely clear, often involves coming to agreement with people you dislike, and Hamas represents too big a part of Palestinian opinion to ignore. The problem with doing a peace deal with the reasonable people is that as soon as something goes wrong with the deal (and every process will have its difficult moments), the whole situation will unravel. This was the problem with the Sunningdale agreement in Northern Ireland in 1973. It did not include the extremes, i.e. the IRA or, more crucially, the DUP or the Loyalist paramilitaries. Therefore it collapsed. The fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein are running the new Northern Ireland settlement is helpful to its long term prospects. So, although it was frustrating and unpleasant at the time, was the way in which Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness moved slowly, and sometimes said things I did not like, but took nearly all the Republican movement with them, in contrast to previous leaders who had ordered the guns to fall silent and saw violent movements sprout from small seeds, again and again.

Palestinian elections are overdue. I hope Fatah win outright, but if they do not, I would urge people in the west and Israel not to throw up their hands in horror and reject the entire peace process. If there has to be a Grand Coalition between Fatah and Hamas, that has the advantage of binding more people into any agreement. There are parties in the Israeli coalition that are hostile to any idea of a Palestinian state and support loyalty tests and military aggression, but somehow their presence at talks is uncontroversial. It is reasonable to expect Hamas – as it was in the cases of Irish Republicans and indeed the ANC – to suspend violence during talks. But permanent renunciation may need to be left until after there is an agreement.

Hamas, according to the Palestinians I spoke to, is in theory committed to destroying Israel but in practice prepared to accept previous agreements (including Oslo, which recognises Israel). So if a section of Hamas can in practice stop violence and participate in talks it seems foolish or worse to put up barriers about symbols. Pragmatic Israeli Gadi Taub comments: ‘Let’s stop making peace a condition for ending the occupation. When peace is at stake, everyone has demands for ultimate and cosmic justice, so let’s settle on the pragmatic establishment of two states first and hopefully everyone will become more pragmatic about peace.’

It was said in Northern Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’; how about Oslo and Camp David, or a revised version of the 1947 partition plan,  for slow learners?

A symbol of what Palestine strives for was the square in the government area where the flags of all the countries that have given Palestine international recognition fly proudly. Many of the flags are of Arab and African states which recognised Palestine somewhat abstractly following Yasser Arafat’s declaration of independence in 1988, before the creation of the Palestinian Authority. There has recently been something of a second wave of recognitions, led by Latin American countries, with the result that Brazil gets a street named after it in Ramallah. Latin American recognition is on the basis of the pre-1967 boundaries, and alongside diplomatic recognition of Israel.

The only reason I can think of not to recognise the Palestinian Authority as a state is that it does not have sufficient control over its own territory and it is a structure created by what was intended to be an interim agreement in advance of a proper overall treaty. I am also a little wary that it would cement the idea in place that there is a dispute between equal parties, where the reality is that Israel is dominant. But apparently in international legal terms this is not a valid reason for withholding recognition.

I am tidy-minded, and there should be someone at the UN and internationally to speak for Gaza and the West Bank just as there is for everywhere else. A decent settlement will result in Palestine getting full recognition anyway. And to single the Palestinians out is invidious; the argument is often made in frankly racist terms that deny that Palestinians are entitled to be considered a nation. So recognising Palestine seems pretty sensible; particularly as the diplomatic process is log-jammed, let’s give it a shove.

We visited the Yasser Arafat Mausoleum, near the Presidency building in Ramallah. It is quite an austere and modest modern structure, although the Ramallah tomb is temporary because Arafat as a Jerusalemite wanted to be buried in his home city which Palestinians aspire to have as their national capital.


I felt a measure of diffidence at the Arafat tomb. I was wrong to do so, given how strongly I felt on the Friday paying my respects to his partner in the reluctant handshake of 1993, Yitzhak Rabin (LINK to Herzl). Arafat’s past, his hesitancy, his lenience with extremists, his failures of statesmanship, are all very plain, but life is a learning process and he learned from it, while setting the Palestinian Authority on a course towards international recognition as a state for the Palestinian people. We are close in time to Arafat’s faults, but he is still the founding father (I hope) of a nation’s political institutions, and nations are entitled to airbrush the memories of their founding fathers: Ataturk, Pilsudski, Venizelos, Ben-Gurion, De Valera and even Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were not always resolutely right in judgement and moral in conduct. Arafat is a symbol for the Palestinian people – not just of national self-determination but of national unity – and that is worthy of respect.

Next: Stoned Again: Ramallah Nights


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Street in Al-Amary camp, Ramallah

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‘Administrative detention’ (Wednesday 8 February)

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

Previous: A tale of two townships

We spent Wednesday mostly in and around Ramallah, in one of the more formal days of the programme, seeing a bit more of the infrastructure of a – perhaps temporary – national capital emerging from a provincial town. Unlike some other new capitals like Chisinau, Bratislava or Tallinn, Ramallah does not inherit imposing state buildings but instead has had to build them in the last 20 years. The result is that the government areas of Ramallah are all marble, plazas and large windows, and look very much of our time. We visited the Al-Amary refugee camp in the morning, which was different from the new areas of Ramallah but perhaps not as different as I had pictured in my mind.

The term ‘refugee camp’ suggests a temporary settlement made of tents, but Al-Amary in Ramallah has long outgrown those roots. In the early 1950s UNRWA built rows of simple single storey structures, but few of these remain. Over the decades they have been built over and upwards and the result is a densely-populated urban neighbourhood based around a maze of alleyways. Some of the houses are shakily built out over the alleyways, and it looks inadvisable to shelter from a storm under them. Most of the residents now were born here, but their families come from Haifa, Lydda and Jaffa originally. It is not a rich place, but it has developed a strong community spirit as Al-Amary, and has one of Palestine’s best football teams. Politically, it is a Fatah stronghold and the local party is outward-looking, having developed links with France in particular.


A fair bit of the programme was with Fatah, but we also met a number of Non-Governmental Organisations working in Palestine, including advocates for prisoners (www.ppsmo.org in Arabic) children (http://www.dci-pal.org/ Arabic and English) and human rights and legal procedure (http://www.alhaq.org/ English). Each briefing was in its own way profoundly depressing and enlightening. I won’t trudge through each of them now, but some of the findings are interspersed in other things I’ve written here and it is worth reading what they, and other organisations such as OCHA, have written and researched. There is a mass of evidence, which satisfies many international organisations, that even leaving aside the basic injustice of the occupation there are many things about the way it is being done which are wrongs in themselves.

For instance, it is difficult to get much sympathy for the rights of people in prison, and I must admit that I approached the question of Palestinian prisoners with some scepticism. But it is a serious matter, and criminal justice goes to the heart of the problems of life on the West Bank. People are quite simply not being treated fairly, and that discrimination runs along ethnic-political lines. One must first grasp the meaning of the phrase ‘administrative detention’. Its slight Orwellian ring is probably not an accident, as it is the product of British colonial law enforcement as practiced in the Palestine Mandate and in Burma by police officers including Orwell – a country whose rulers continue to use it against political opponents like Aung San Suu Kyi. ‘Administrative detention’ simply means locking people up without trial. It is usually a matter for the Israeli military, and there seems to be little to stop the six-month detention period being extended time after time. I had naively believed before I came to the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority had full control over at least the urban areas, but there are regular Israeli raids that result in people being arrested and being incarcerated by administrative detention, without their legal advisers having access to evidence.

Detention has very occasionally been used against Israeli citizens, usually for short periods, but it is overwhelmingly a tool of the occupation authorities to lock Palestinians up for indeterminate times. Some of the people locked up will be terrorists, but we do not know because there has not been a transparent legal process to prove it. Many will not be. In most democratic countries that have detention of some sort without trial, it is used as a last resort against a small number of people and hedged around with restriction and monitoring. But it is used on a large scale in the occupied territories, apparently in a routine fashion. In January 2012 there were 309 people in the Israeli prison system under administrative detention (http://www.btselem.org/administrative_detention/statistics) and an indeterminate number held by the Israeli military. This is the largest number since October 2009. The length of imprisonment can be very long – Israeli NGO B’Tselem recorded in 2009 that 26 people had been locked up for over 2 years, 93 between one and two years and 103 for between six months and a year. When confined in the Israeli prison system family visits are usually impossible – remember that you can’t travel without a permit? There have been several recent hunger strikes by Palestinians who have been subjected to administrative detention, which have occasionally been successful.

B’Tselem makes a powerful and disturbing point in showing that there are parallel legal systems in operation on the West Bank. Settlers – and indeed peace protesters coming over from Israel proper – are subject to Israeli law as if they were in Israel, which gives suspects the sort of rights that one would expect from a democratic country. Getting arrested is a hazard for Israeli leftists who go to demonstrations like Bi’lin, but it is the same sort of risk as one runs by getting involved in civil disobedience in many countries. Settlers tend to be treated even more leniently, even for violent crime. Palestinians are processed under occupation military law with its repressive features like administrative detention, and their lives subject to arbitrary state control. Settlers outside the East Jerusalem ring are also generally heavily armed and some have perpetrated violence and abuse of Palestinians with impunity. Palestinians attack settlers too, of course, but they are much weaker because they are not allowed weapons and they face the full force not just of the appropriate legal sanctions but the unfair application of occupation law.

The effect spreads wider than just the people who have been detained. It creates a climate of fear and uncertainty more generally. Another NGO working in the Palestinian Territories is DCI (Defence of Children International), which has compiled worrying evidence of the way the Israeli army is treating children in Palestine. There seem to be frequent midnight raids, indiscriminately carried out, utterly disproportionate to the offences alleged, and amounting in practice to abduction. I do not wish to minimise the fact that throwing stones is stupid and can hurt people, and parents and other people in the community generally try to discourage it. But the consequences are so grossly out of line with the offence – midnight abduction and perhaps 2 to 10 months in prison, probably deepening childish trouble-making attitudes into deep, hateful militancy in the process.

But it seems strange that people can get so worked up about children – by their nature not very responsible – throwing stones while heavily-armed soldiers firing plastic bullets into a crowd at a demonstration hardly rates a shrug. It does Israel’s defenders no credit at all to reflexively conflate perfectly valid human rights and international legal concerns with anti-Semitic prejudice or wishing the destruction of Israel. That is merely intellectual bullying. It is for true friends of Israel to tell their friend that she should act according her own and universal human values, and that the conduct of the occupation – and the occupation itself – are unacceptable. I know this is not a simple story, and that there is wrong on both sides, but I come back to the fact that there is such a gross imbalance in strength between the two sides and the principle that it is first the place of the stronger party to act with dignity and propriety. I know that Israelis are full of fear as well. But from seeing the other side of the Wall, it feels to many ordinary decent Palestinians that the occupation, in its harshness, arbitrariness and little inhumanities like the ploughing up of olive groves is another image from Orwell: a boot stamping repeatedly on a human face.

Next: Meeting Fatah

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Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1) (Sunday 5 February)

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Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1) (Sunday 5 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Introduction to Jerusalem

We were not staying in Jerusalem for the second night, so we had to get to Ramallah. Buses in Jerusalem are segregated by destination, with West Bank towns north of Jerusalem served by a bus station near the Damascus Gate. The clean, modern bus trundled up the road through the northern suburbs of Jerusalem, alongside a new tram route and through pleasant looking suburbs, then some rather scruffier areas on the edge of town. So far, so normal – but then BANG. You’re up against ‘the Wall’.


The Wall is far from a straight line, but we’ll come to that soon. First, its physical presence. It is surpassing ugly. It is a 4-8 metre high ripple of prefabricated grey concrete, with no concessions to any aesthetic except brutalism. It is dotted with watchtowers and it is a sinister, alienating architectural imposition on this already broken landscape.




Like its erstwhile Berlin counterpart, it has started to attract graffiti artists. At the Qalandia checkpoint, the main road crossing between Jerusalem and Ramallah, there are some rather idealised murals of Yasser Arafat and Marwan Barghouti.



The ugliness of Qalandia spreads out from the checkpoint; there’s a wilderness of concrete, rocks, litter and dirt surrounding it. Traffic is frequently backed up for miles around it from the Palestinian side. Seeing it once makes one depressed. Seeing it every day must rot the soul.


The crossing point is at the end of the runway of what used to be Jerusalem’s airport, Atarot/ Kalandia. It has not been used by air traffic since the start of the second intifada in 2000, and some peace plans involve reopening it as either the main Palestinian airport serving East Jerusalem and Ramallah in particular, or a shared-sovereignty joint airport. But for now it remains closed to traffic, a site some on the Israeli side eye up for a possible settlement.


Ramallah is really an overgrown small town, quite normal in most respects with the usual balance of scruffy and pleasant-looking areas, rather randomly thrust together. It reminded me a little of other small towns suddenly promoted to capitals, such as Zagreb or Tallinn. One would be on what looks like a suburban avenue and then there would be a Palestinian Authority official building. One of them, established more in a spirit of optimism than practicality, is the Palestinian Monetary Authority. Probably the first bizarre thing one notices about Palestine is that the currency is the Israeli shekel, so even the hardest-core Hamas-supporting Palestinian is forced into some sort of accommodation with the Israeli state. It is incongruous to find oneself handing over banknotes depicting Israel’s founding fathers while deep in Palestinian territory.

We were staying at the Rocky Hotel in Ramallah. I really am not sure why it is called that; as a description ‘rocky’ is about as distinctive around here as ‘icy’ in Greenland. Perhaps it’s a cinematic reference.



The Rocky is a pleasant enough place to stay. A little way along the corridor from my room was a meeting suite, which seemed to be doing a good trade in conferences (hence the number of UN vehicles in the photograph). Next morning I, and my other early-arriving colleagues, met the rest of the Labour 2 Palestine delegation and the formal part of the tour began. Breakfast was Middle Eastern in style, with pitta bread, salad, cheese and meat, but unfortunately the coffee was instant rather than Arabic. We made an early start in the tour bus that was to become very familiar, and headed south towards Jerusalem.

NEXT: Dystopia in Jerusalem




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