Ramallah Letter: Abbas’s government not impressing all Palestinians
The absence of constant violence or incursions by Israeli forces is not enough to satisfy everyone
Despite the wealth evident on the streets of Ramallah, and the absence of sustained violence or incursions by Israeli forces, not all Palestinians are impressed with the achievements of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s government. Photograph: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
A few miles from the densely-trafficked Kalamatia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the effect of the rule of the Palestinian Authority (PA) is clear to see.
Smartly uniformed policemen direct traffic on streets flanked by sushi restaurants and newly minted government departments. Outside the five-star Movenpick hotel, an Audi Q5 demonstration model is displayed on the prim lawn. More German marques ferry passengers between appointments, and even the frequent protests on Nablus Street, where schoolchildren noisily demand the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, have a sameness and safety.
Despite the wealth evident on the streets of Ramallah, and the absence of sustained violence or incursions by Israeli forces, not all Palestinians are impressed with the achievements of President Mahmoud Abbas’s government. Jamal (26), a taxi driver, says that ordinary Palestinians’ lives have not improved, while an elite connected with the government and the ruling Fatah party have prospered.
“All the people in this country do not believe in Abbas. His people are bad for us...it looks like you have a government, but you don’t. From the day [he] arrived, all I see is walls, walls, walls.”
Since the PA came to power, he argues, Israel has placed even more restrictions on the movement of Palestinians across the borders, and within the West Bank itself. Ordinary life, he says, is frustrated at every turn. “You want to have a family, have kids – you have a plan, but you cannot build on [it]. You cannot do anything.”
Gideon Levy, a columnist with the Israeli English-language daily Ha’aretz who has covered the West Bank extensively, is unsurprised by the apathy of normal Palestinians. Many who live under its rule, he says, see the PA as self-serving and corrupt. “They failed to bring any kind of progress to their people. The political path totally failed. They didn’t get anything through diplomacy – and they are perceived as corrupt, which is partly true.”
More damningly, he says that as long as it fails to improve the lot of the man in the street, the PA simply administers Israeli rule in the West Bank, alienating Palestinians from the political process. “Doesn’t the PA, in a way, collaborate with the occupation? Israel has no responsibility in terms of budget [or] civil administration...[and] don’t forget the co-operation of the PA with Israel on security issues.
“They are perceived by many Palestinians as collaborators, and rightly so, in many ways.”
About 40km from Ramallah, outside Nablus, is Balata refugee camp. By population (about 30,000), this dense warren of streets and alleyways is the largest camp in the West Bank. It has proved to be fertile ground for extremism, and provided many of the foot soldiers of the intifadas. Here too, distrust of the Ramallah government is strong.
Fayez Hassan Arafat is the director of the Yaffa Cultural Centre in the camp. The centre is spread across a collection of ramshackle buildings and offices, and runs a number of co-educational courses for young people from Balata, which has a population of 6,000 under 18. A sign on the wall of a simple classroom in the centre proclaims that the teacher, Miss April, is from Ireland. There, the sign points out, it is cold and it rains a lot.
Unemployment in the camp stands at 52 per cent, up from 48 per cent in 2011. Arafat argues that the difficulties of life in the camp are politically useful for the Abbas government, which, he says, does little to support Balata.
“The suffering of the people here, sometimes they invest in this. It’s a political issue. The refugee camp is a very important eyesore.”
The urban geography of Balata retains the form of rows of tents that were erected when people first settled here during the 1950s. Although many of its residents were born here and know nothing but life in the camp, the desire to return to their ancestral homes remains strong. In addition to the disillusionment with the PA, there is a cohort of young people for whom the possibility of armed resistance to Israel is a real option. Hamsa (22) holds your gaze as he says that he is “ready” to take arms. “If you have the faith, you have the willingness to do that.”
Arafat, who has seen both the inside of Israeli jails and blood on the streets of Balata, admits that the possibility of violence remains, but insists that violence is not the only way to improve the lot of the camp residents.
“Armed resistance is the last resort. We believe in different ways of resistance: media, negotiation, education, enlightening people about their rights, empowerment of the social structure. In our case we choose peaceful ways, as much as we can. ”