Two more faces of Palestine: the capital and a small town with no major landmarks from antiquity
Much of the West Bank and Ramallah in particular remind me of every developing country I have ever visited: Roads in various states of disrepair. Incomplete buildings that are either under construction or abandoned and crumbling. Graffiti. Weed- and litter-choked empty lots. Wrecked cars. Busy markets with small shops open to the street that exemplify the most basic form of capitalism. No big-box stores here. Call it small-box retail.
Roadside repair businesses. Street vendors. Tailors and cobblers working out of impossibly small shops. Storefront doctors and dentists. In short, providers of goods and services that keep a community functioning, along with schools, houses of worship. There are also sparkling office buildings, banks, government buildings, good hotels, high-rise apartment buildings and prosperous residential neighborhoods, symbols of hope for better times to come.
Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Territories north of Jerusalem, was often in the headlines during the two Intifadas. Originally an agricultural community and primarily a Christian town, its residents were early adopters of resistance, many joining frequent protests, strikes and demonstrations. It is currently the capital of the occupied Palestinian territories and, if and when Palestine gains independence, it will be the capital of the country.
We started with a lavish poolside buffet breakfast at the Grand Park Resort and Hotel, a pristine property catering largely to business travelers and those with business at consulates in the Palestinian capital. The hotel was built in 1997 as a two-story building and renovated and expanded with three additional floors last year. A large screen was put up in the pool area for World Cup games.
Also, a new Mövenpick Hotel is under construction. The project began in 1999, remained in limbo between 2003 and 2005, was restarted with an anticipated completion date of 2007 and finally seems on track to open fairly soon. The renovation and expansion of one fine European-style property and the projected open of another are positive signs that things are getting better in Ramallah, even if progress is sometimes slow.
Arafat: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
To Westerners, the name Yasser Arafat is m most often associated with his early years of Palestine Liberation Organization violence. To Palestinians, he not is unlike George Washington to Americans or, in fact, David Ben-Gurion to Israelis — in short, a leader in the battles for their respective independence movements and the first head of government once it was achieved (or in Palestine’s case, partially achieved).
Arafat, who gained world recognition as a terrorist, later was co-laureate with Israel’s Itzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. Peres is still alive and active in government, but Rabin was assassinated by an ultra-Orthodox Jew for his peace-making efforts. A decade later, Israel re-declared Arafat to be terrorist and kept him under house arrest for some two years, releasing him only to die in Paris. Some Palestinians believe that the Israelis had a hand in his demise. His simple mausoleum of Palestine stone and glass remains a pilgrimage place for Palestinians, many of whom are willing to overlook the corruption that the political movement he had started eventually deteriorated into.
The Riwaq Center
(Center for Architectural Conservation) is an NGO
that seeks to inventory, document, protect, rehabilitate and reuse Palestine’s architectural heritage buildings, with the additional benefit of job creation and community involvement. With 50,320 historic buildings in 422 towns and villages, it has undertaken what has already been a Herculean task but one that has already earned it a prestigious UNESCO World Habitat prize in 2006. According to Riwaq’s Farahat Mihawee
, the immediate priority is to protect 50 of those 422 identified centers and 50 percent of the the historic (i.e., pre
-concrete) buildings within them. Sixteen protection plans for cultural heritage protection have been drawn up. Funding is currently available for three out of those 50 priority sites. For visitors interested in antiquities and community, Riwaq’s
concept of a mapped Cultural Tourism Trail linking traditional villages is in the works with help from a Swedish International Development Agency.
We drove to the village or Ein Areek (aka, Ain Arik), where we were welcomed by Father Giovanni Santee of the monastic community of St. Benedict. He has been in the Holy Land (here and in Jordan) for 30 years and is one of three brothers and five sisters who maintain this Catholic church as a “place of prayer and peace.” Although they are all originally from Italy, as part of their seven hours of daily devotion, they read the Old and New Testaments pray, say the Rosary and celebrate Mass in Arabic. He says that they maintain good relations with the increasingly large Muslim community and also with the local Imam and Orthodox priest. The clerics communicate on social issues, especially education, that affect the community but stay away from each others’ theologies. He says there are “no fundamentalists” in the village and that neighbors have “lived together for centuries.”
Back to Jerusalem
Even after short time in the gentle tranquility of Ein Areek, it was a shock to return to Jerusalem passing yet another choked checkpoint, aggressive graffiti on the wall, children who should be in school hawking CDs and occasionally throwing rocks, and a tattered United Nations flag flying over a World Food Program warehouse.
This was the last full day of touring the West Bank.