RAMALLAH - It's almost midnight. Tens of thousands of people fill the street and squares in the city center, shopping, meeting friends and above all enjoying themselves. The city has never seemed so vibrant.
A few streets are closed to vehicles; you'd have to be suicidal to try to drive here now anyway. A few brave souls try to navigate their cars through these streets that are given over to foot traffic: young and old, families and high schoolers, all out for a typical Ramadan evening of cafes, fine restaurants, food stalls and bargains on every street corner. It's almost impossible to make one's way eastward into Manara Square, near the main taxi stations, where all the market stalls are open for business and packed with customers: clothing, fresh produce, CDs.
Every couple of hundred meters is a little shopping center, one of many that have opened in the past few years in this bubble of Palestinian life called Ramallah. In contrast to years past there are few places created especially for the Ramadan nights, tents or stages where musicians perform for a captive audience a few hours after the daytime fast is broken with the iftar meal. The talk of economic slowdown in the West Bank, however, seems completely out of place here.
In Clock Square, where last September Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made a speech to the UN General Assembly in which he announced his attention to seek full membership in the Security Council, is a live broadcast of a local radio station. One wonders what will happen here this September: Will the PA try to turn its bid in the GA to become a nonmember state at the United Nations into some kind of festival? The question seems very distant from here tonight. The only sign of the conflict with Israel in central Ramallah now are the posters calling for a boycott of all Israeli products.
The crowds seem much more interested in the announcer from Radio Mazaj 102.5 FM, who threads her way through the masses asking trivia questions. One 10-year-old boy, who came from Nablus with his family, tells her they're here to buy him shoes. He doesn't know the answer to the announcer's question, however, so she moves on.
In the clear light of day the true economic and political situation here is more clear. Few people dispute the economic slowdown in the West Bank - the question is whether it can be called a recession. The Palestinian economy has always depended on donations, some of which never arrive. In 2008-2010 the growth rate was 8 percent to 12 percent, in 2011 it fell to 6 percent and this year the anticipated growth rate is just 5 percent. Unemployment rose from around 15 percent in the second quarter of 2011 to 17.1 percent in the same period this year. Most worrying of all, to Israel as well, is the PA's fiscal crisis, which makes paying salaries and suppliers a monthly magic trick.
Nevertheless, the situation is vastly better here than it was six or seven years ago. The residents of Ramallah seem far from being about to launch a third intifada; they seem to be benefiting from the relatively calm security situation.
But no one, including Israeli military officials and a battery of Palestinian commentators, disputes the volatility of this complex situation. Everyone agrees that the calm could disappear in an instant, particularly in light of the lack of progress in the peace talks and the increasing violence on the part of Jewish settlers. One terror attack against Palestinians (such as the Molotov cocktail incident south of Bethlehem ) or attack on an important mosque could turn the quiet desperation into widespread anger.
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