In Ramallah, Concerts and Ceremonies Coexist With Military Escalation

In the midst of Israeli raids last week, Palestinian intelligence tried to arrest a Bir Zeit university student over a Facebook post. The fight that ensued among students showed just how weary everyone's nerves were

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A girl watches the funeral of Palestinian Mahmoud Nakhla, 18, in Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah, West Bank, December 15, 2018.
A girl watches the funeral of Palestinian Mahmoud Nakhla, 18, in Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah, West Bank, December 15, 2018.Credit: \ MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The ceremony inaugurating the first stage of a Palestinian administrative business register was delayed a little. Civil servants took advantage of the tarry to gossip about their bosses and especially to share information about village roads, the ones that bypass the roadblocks and exit Ramallah on the way home. It was a scene that taught how the quasi normalcy of life in a Palestinian enclave in the West Bank coexists with a sudden military escalation. 

The Israeli army blocked off some of the entrances to the two cities and some villages in the Ramallah district last week, and soldiers were posted at other entrances where they slowed down exiting traffic. Sometimes, the soldiers let five cars pass through per hour, and sometimes as many as 15. Consequently, long lines of vehicles waited at these intersections, particularly in the afternoons and evenings. The drivers phoned home to explain in a tone of understated anger that there’s nothing to be done – the occupation is once again exacting collective vengeance. 

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You couldn’t call these roadblocks a security measure on the basis of intelligence information, as many of the drivers find alternative round-about routes (which the army is quite familiar with and could also block off if it wanted to) in order to get out of the cage. It’s better to take the longer drive “as long as we don’t have to sit for an hour or three watching 19-year-old soldiers controlling our time,” an official at the Palestinian Communications Ministry said to a colleague from the national economic office who he had just met at the register inauguration.   

News websites posted photographs of the traffic situation at the roadblocks around Ramallah and Facebook supplied its own updates. Sometimes, drivers were signaled by the sight of black clouds set off by burning tires to avoid confrontation spots – such as near Jalazoun refugee camp – and then the parallel roadways jammed up immediately. 

Israeli soldiers walk away after they demolished the Abu Hmeid family's home in Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, West Bank, December 15, 2018. Credit: Majdi Mohammed,AP

Every Palestinian wakes up routinely to the latest news flashes, which include the number of people arrested the previous night and how many raids the army carried out. Last Thursday, for example, five people were arrested – three from Kobar, one from Ramallah and another from Hizme. The day before, the number of arrests was 28, 15 of them from Issawiya in Jerusalem. Palestinian media also reported that a couple of days ago, the Ofer military court denied an appeal to release Omar and Assem, the father and brother of Saleh Barghouti, who Israel suspects shot at Israelis near the settlement of Ofra and who, according to reports, was shot and killed by soldiers.

Family members and human rights groups’ representatives have said they cannot believe the reports about his death as long as they see no remains, for witnesses have said they saw Saleh get out of his car alive after soldiers shot at him near a supermarket in the village of Surda. During a raid on Kobar on Friday, Saleh’s mother, Suheir, was apparently questioned at length by a Shin Bet official, referred to in Palestinian media as "the occupation forces."  

The Palestinian Prisoners Club reported that the suspect’s father, who is 67, was not permitted more than two hours sleep while he was being interrogated at the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, and that he spent many hours with his hands cuffed behind his back, seated on a low stool.
Media consumers can only guess, with a mixture of anger and helplessness, what must have gone through his head while being denied sleep, his back bent painfully, not knowing what happened to one son, worrying about another who'd been declared a wanted man, while knowing the homes of both their families are at risk of being demolished in the name of what is known as Israeli deterrence, which in the West Bank is interpreted as collective revenge.

And at the same time, radio broadcasts raised another issue of public concern, at least in the Ramallah district: the rising price of the pool or "sherut" taxis, due to the situation.  Does the driver have the right to charge more for the trip due to the long wait at the roadblock or because of the additional cost of gasoline for the trip? And if so, how much more? Many complaints have been filed about it to the Transportation Ministry, the spokesman said.

A popular morning show presenter urged listeners or journalists to avoid sending in inaccurate reports, which may inflame the situation. She also interviewed a woman who works in education about the need to keep an even more attentive eye on the children "because we don’t tend to let on about our feelings" and to hug them and let them have fun so that "they don’t experience what we did in the first Intifada," when it was decided to abstain from parties and other festivities. As an echo to her message, in spite of the checkpoints and the newly-bereaved families, the Jubran Trio, oud players from Nazareth, performed twice last week in Ramallah to a full auditorium of 750 seats and a cheering audience.

If concerts are being held as normal then of course business meetings are also going on as usual, such as the inauguration of the business in a conference hall of the Finance Ministry – a distance of less than a kilometer from the Beit El checkpoint, where the asphalt has been blackened by burning tires and is covered in stones that have been thrown there. 

Palestinians sit in a street following clashes with Israeli troops after the Abu Hmeid family's home was demolished by Israeli forces, Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, West Bank, December 15, 2018.Credit: Majdi Mohammed,AP

The woman leading the ceremony compared the business register to a sapling that would grow. A different source – the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics –explains that a business register is "a list of all economic units – public and private businesses – for categorization, sampling and statistical analysis. A business registry exists in most developed countries, is conducted by statistical bureaus based on administrative information."

The Palestinian register includes only private businesses. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics embarked on the work about four years ago, with the joint participation of the Palestinian finance, and national economy ministries and the professional and financial support from the French government, some 700,000 euros ($798,700). It’s a source of pride and a part of the process of building state institutions, official Palestinian and French spokespeople said, the latter adding that their support expresses their confidence in the future of Palestinian statehood. The statistics bureau team behind the project was praised, as was the spirit of cooperation and information sharing among the various arms: the Finance Ministry, the chamber of commerce and the municipalities. Privately, a member of the founding team praised the Ramallah municipality, which provided the most accurate data off all municipalities.

Anyone seeking information from official media on what happened at Bir Zeit University on Monday last week had a difficult time finding anything out. Some information could be gleaned from the administration's announcements about suspension of studies for one day and a closure of the gates to all students on Tuesday. Facebook posts showed a few young men dressed in civilian garb blocking a car at the entrance and the intersection near the university, trying to pull passengers from the vehicle. A large traffic jam developed. "These must be musta'arbeen (Israeli soldiers disguised as Arabs)," someone says while filming the scene. "Look, he has a pistol," another person next to her says.

The video shows some young men gracefully fleeing the blocked vehicle and running toward the campus before the photographer panics over shots fired into the air. A student told Haaretz that the young men were physical education colleagues. One of them, who is loosely affiliated with the student council’s Islamic bloc, criticized the Palestinian Authority in a post on Facebook the day before and called for an attack on a Palestinian police station on Monday afternoon. The set time for the attack had already passed without any occurrences, so it was clear the post was about nothing more than Facebook heroism. But someone in the Palestinian General Intelligence decided to send a few of his people to arrest him, the student said.

Bystanders and those still at the campus were convinced these were again undercover Israeli soldiers, just like the ones who had arrested the chairman of the Islamic bloc a few months earlier at the campus. But the vehicle’s passengers already understood they were Palestinian security forces and apparently reported to their friends at the Islamic bloc who were waiting for them on campus, and began chanting against the Shabiba (Fatah bloc). A large fight ensued between members of both blocs at the university and windows were smashed and furniture was broken. Then a few public figures and activists intervened to try and calm everyone’s weary, road-blocked nerves.

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