Banks fuel 'Ramallah bubble' but debt cannot be far behind


In the second part of her series on the lives of the Palestinians,  MICHAEL JANSENreports from Ramallah

THE ROAD from the sprawling Israeli terminal at Kalandia marking the border between Jerusalem and Ramallah is strewn with rubble and rubbish and packed with cars and lorries jostling for openings. Vehicles swerve between potholes as they whizz past handsome multistorey buildings faced in white stone sprouting in green fields.

The centre of Ramallah is thronged with people shopping, strolling and eating pastries under the eyes of the stone lions that grace the traffic circle at Manara Square.

Cafes are filled with boys with spiky gelled hair and girls in headscarves and tight jeans smoking water pipes and gossiping.

Ramallah is hot, hip and expensive; no longer a sleepy village but a boom town administered by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority which even President Mahmoud Abbas argues has been stripped of its authority by Israel.

“Palestinians have no political horizon,” observes business consultant Sam Bahour, sipping cappuccino at the fashionable Pronto cafe. “What’s at stake now is the paradigm of two states,” a Palestinian state next to that of Israel. He says this option is no longer tenable due to Israeli settlement expansion on land slated for the Palestinian state.

“If the two-state paradigm is lost, it is not clear what comes next,” he says. Other options he mentions are a bi-national Palestinian-Israeli state totally unacceptable to Israel, and “apartheid” which is rejected by the international community. “We have to think up other options,” he states. “But we are blinkered.”

Commenting on the proliferation of high rises, he says: “Buildings and real estate are the safest places to put investment.”

However, he says they do not provide long-term jobs for the growing population and goods and services for current and future consumption.

Buildings also contribute to what he calls the “Ramallah bubble” which, thanks to the Palestinian monetary authority, is expanding rapidly.

Under a system introduced recently, the percentage of money banks must lend from their coffers has been raised.

“People are financing homes, cars, marriages, computers

and education by borrowing,”

he states. “Banks get loan guarantees, but individuals get into debt,” as they did in western countries suffering from massive individual and national indebtedness.

He points out that the

World Bank has warned that

the economic situation is “unsustainable”. In its latest report, the bank stated, again, there is no freedom of movement for goods and Palestinians in the West Bank and no direct trade with the outside world.

Transfers of tariffs and customs duties collected by Israel on behalf of the authority are often frozen by Israel, making it impossible to pay salaries of civil servants. Donor countries fail to provide the level of financial assistance the authority requires.

At least one-third of the authority’s budget is devoted to providing “security for Israelis and there is no accountability for how funds are spent”, he asserts.

Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian National Initiative chairman, says the last 20 years of negotiations have been “a complete failure and leaders who relied on negotiations are failures”.

“We need to change the political parameters and the balance of power by adopting non-violent resistance combined with international divestment from Israel and boycotts. A Palestinian boycott of all Israeli products would cost them $4.3 billion. We have no alter- native. Negotiations are dead.”

Non-violent action has a price which the charismatic Dr Barghouti, a former presidential candidate, has already paid.

He was struck on the head by a tear gas canister fired by Israeli police during a protest at the Kalandia terminal on March 30th against Israeli expropriations of Palestinian land.

“Israel is annexing the whole of the West Bank and confining us to large and small bantustans. It won’t work,” he asserts. “This is a recipe for an explosion.”

Barghouti’s call for popular resistance – opposed by the old-guard Fatah leadership dominating the West Bank – received a boost when his popular distant cousin Marwan Barghouti, former head of Fatah’s youth wing who was imprisoned by Israel for life, issued a call for a non-violent intifada modelled on the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings.

Back in Kalandia driving alongside Israel’s eight-metre high grey cement slab wall, complete with round watch towers, we pass a portrait of the jailed leader and the demand “Free Marwan Barghouti.”