How Do You Run a City With No Country? Ramallah Mayor Has an Answer

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A Palestinian university graduate sells French fries in a food truck in Ramallah, last month.
A Palestinian university graduate sells French fries in a food truck in Ramallah, last month.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

Shortly before U.S. President Donald Trump formally announced that he was moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Ramallah Mayor Musa Hadid was sitting in his office and hearing the first details of the event that was already causing outrage in the Arab world. “I’m disconnected from the people, I don’t read newspapers and don’t hear anything,” he said, in a conversation with a local clergyman.

As one can see in “Mayor,” the documentary made about him, Hadid was much more concerned in early December 2017 about the Christmas celebrations due to be held in his city, the de facto seat of the Palestinian government. According to the 90-minute film by American director David Osit – which can be purchased or rented through the website mayorfilm.com – Hadid is not a political leader but a public servant. “We have to deal with managing the city and leave the politics to others,” he says at a city council meeting, . Creaking doors at a local school aggravate him more than a violent demonstration against the occupation.

Ramallah Mayor Musa Hadid in 'Mayor.' We have to deal with managing the city and leave the politics to others.

“I feel jealous when I visit other cities,” he admits. “There’s so much they can do that we cannot.” But he is visibly excited when filmed sitting in a new café in the city. If it were up to him, he would turn Ramallah into the Las Vegas of the Palestinian Authority. While he refuses to get upset about the moving of the embassy, he becomes animated during a discussion about branding the city. Should they suffice with the letter “R,” or write out the world “are” in what in the end turns into the city’s new slogan: WeRamallah?

“We could use public servants like him in the United States,” Osit tells Haaretz, in a telephone interview. “He always says he will do the job until someone else comes to replace him. That his job is to manage the city as best as he can. To fix the roads, to hold festivals, to improve infrastructures. Unlike other mayors he doesn’t even control the police force in his city. When Trump said he planned to announce that he was moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Hadid heard about it from a priest who had come to visit him.”

Bars and Jaguars

What was a 34-year-old American looking for in Ramallah? According to Osit, it all started in 2008 when he was studying refugee law at Cairo University.

Ramallah Mayor Musa Hadid in 'Mayor.'Credit: Rosewater Pictures

“During that period I visited Ramallah pretty often, and at a certain point I started to get interested in making films and I was involved in the production of the [2015] documentary ‘Off Frame Aka Revolution Until Victory.’ Four years after I left the region I came back to Ramallah and was surprised by how changed it was. Suddenly there were cafes, hipster bars, a Jaguar dealership. I thought to myself that even I, who had spent plenty of time in the Middle East and spoke Arabic, was stuck with a one-dimensional view of what a Palestinian city is supposed to look like. It made me want to make a film about Ramallah and the man who runs it, who has to run a city without a country in the shadow of the occupation.”

Osit does not hide his negative opinion of Israel and the presence of the Israel Defense Forces in the territories. “I didn’t want to make another movie about the conflict in which the Palestinians are portrayed as violent or as the ultimate victims, which in both cases doesn’t accurately present the story’s complexity. In recent years there have been some amazing documentary films about the occupation by Israeli directors, but those films are presented from the perspective of those Israelis’ feelings of guilt,” he says.

“The Palestinians in them look like faceless and nameless victims. I wanted faces for them that most Americans don’t get to see in other films. The American public cares about injustice but cares less about suffering. I wanted to restore the Palestinians’ self-respect in a way that would gain them empathy or sympathy from Americans.”

Even if it’s not a film about the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict per se, both are present in it. The conflict pursues Hadid, who’s served as the mayor of his city since 2012, everywhere he goes. It’s evident when he drives around and encounters tires set aflame by residents protesting the presence of Israeli soldiers, or when his car gets stuck because of a group of people throwing stones at soldiers.

It’s when Hadid meets foreign activists or travels abroad that he steps into the role of a leader of the occupied Palestinian people.

Director David Osit.Credit: Rosewater Pictures

“We are surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements,” he tells a group of students at Oxford, in the movie. “We can see Jerusalem but we can’t visit Jerusalem.” In a visit to South Africa he attends a tree-planting ceremony and speaks of how the Israeli army uproots olive trees. When peace activists from Germany seek to arrange a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian students, he speaks of the humiliating treatment he suffers at the checkpoints. “When we feel when we are not treated as slaves, and they are the masters, we are ready to do everything,” he tells them.

In the latter part of the documentary he is seen trapped in his office for several hours as IDF soldiers conduct a raid in the city and surround City Hall in an effort to catch wanted persons. Hadid becomes the center of attention of the foreign media outlets that have come to cover the disturbances. When he returns home he is particularly angry about the heavy damage done to two new fountains.

At a crossroads

Like Hadid, Ramallah itself is at a crossroads. On the one hand, cafés are full, and there are branches of brand-name fashion stores, bars and hotels. On the other hand, there are dumpsters on fire in the middle of town and burning tires blocking the roads.

“In Ramallah there is incredible development, a real estate explosion,” says Gershon Baskin, head of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. “In terms of quality of life, it’s different than any of the other West Bank cities. But still, we’re talking about a city hemmed in from all directions. I always joke that even if you don’t know the streets in Ramallah it doesn’t matter – no matter how often you get lost you’ll still end up in the same place.”

People walk in the street during snowfall in Ramallah this month.Credit: ABBAS MOMANI - AFP

Says local resident Hazzam Ziyada, an engineer who deals in medical equipment: “Every day there’s a new restaurant or café opening. You wander around the city and they are building a high-rise building everywhere.”

Ziyada says Hadid is liked by residents, but “because all the PA leadership offices are located in the city and all the senior leaders live in Ramallah, the PA is behind the development of the city and focuses most of its efforts there at the expense of other cities. If you live in the downtown area, near the government buildings, the level of municipal services is much better than those on the city’s outskirts.”

Development also has a price. There is overcrowding and heavy traffic. And expenses are high. “People in Ramallah feel that when it comes to the cost of living there’s no connection between the situation in the city and the situation in other cities in the PA,” Ziyada explains. “People feel like they’re paying American prices.”

“The difference between the cost of living in Ramallah and Hebron is like the difference between the price of an apartment in Tel Aviv and in Be’er Sheva,” says Mohammad Farouk, who works locally in the solar energy industry. “Ramallah isn’t like any other Palestinian city. It’s an advanced city with wireless internet on all the streets.”

'I feel jealous when I visit other cities,' admits Ramallah Mayor Musa Hadid in the movie.Credit: Rosewater Pictures

“In the end Ramallah is a village acting like a big city,” filmmaker Osit concludes. “On the one hand, it is the city of the PA headquarters, located 10 kilometers from Jerusalem, a multicultural city entered by residents from throughout the West Bank every day. From that perspective it’s a city with an international ambience that doesn’t exist in Hebron, Jenin and Bethlehem. A bubble in which you can almost forget you’re under occupation.

On the other hand, in terms of land area it’s barely a village: You can walk from one side of Ramallah to another in half an hour.”

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