Notes from Ramallah: The Downside of Independence

By Prescott Watson

I am a junior studying Economics and Latin American Latino Studies. I traveled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories this September, during a tumultuous time in the peace process; it was my first time there. Leaving Ramallah on the last day of my trip, I had the following reflections.

Photo by Prescott Watson

September 30th, 2011:

In the coming weeks the United States and Israel will face an immense international quandary as they try to block a bid in the United Nations to grant the Palestinians special statehood status. I traveled to Ramallah, the de facto capital of a future state, just two days before the Palestinian National Authority submitted its bid at the UN in New York City. I spent several hours in the city’s multi-day political rally for the unilateral declaration of statehood.

While I sat on a curb to rest, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab fed me pistachios and water. Her daughter, dressed like she could be from Orange County, translated our conversation. They wanted to know about plastic water bottle recycling in California. Later, a poet pushed his name and phone number onto me, asking me to show his work to my editors. Everywhere I squirmed through the crowd, adults mistook me for Chinese and flashed the peace sign, while children greeted me with “ni hao.” Between speeches at the central stage, live music played and people danced in the square shouting “freedom!”

Three flags were ubiquitous: the red, green, white and black Palestinian flag, another version surrounded by a checkered pattern, as well as a yellow flag with the emblem of Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank. Children flanked the sides of streets, handing out water bottles and the yellow flag of Fatah. We couldn’t understand each other, but swarms of them wanted their photo taken with their flags.

Photo by Prescott Watson

I was surprised by the narrative the rally-goers told me. They supported the bid for statehood at the United Nations because they equated negotiations with defeat. Much as the extreme political right in Israel will only accept a one-state solution, the majority of people with whom I spoke said that the final solution would be one without a neighboring Jewish state. Several were the grandchildren of Palestinian refugees who continue to live in the Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah. “We have patience and the Jews will leave. Then we will return,” said a man who spoke with me on break from work. A schoolgirl translated our conversation. “Israel has too many problems itself and can’t continue to exist,” he said. Their words represent a popular vision among Palestinians: a deterministic view of history in which a solution to the conflict awaits those who can ride it out. They see history heading towards a destination and they are simply waiting for it to arrive.

But the work the Palestinians have ahead of them is daunting; underneath the fervor over their independence lie the ruins of a Palestinian state. Because the government has failed to negotiate a peace and independence with its neighbor, its bid at the United Nations leaves vital national issues unanswered. The government is terribly corrupt and often isn’t trusted by its people. It is severed into two parts, with the more extreme faction, Hamas, often disregarding the other’s demands. The deterministic view of the peace process that I saw in Ramallah is blind to these realities. Both the Palestinians and Israelis must make concerted efforts to create two viable states living side by side. The Palestinians lack adequate governance to maintain important infrastructure, including water management, electricity, education, police and defense, leaving people in jeopardy. And by unilaterally declaring independence, they risk nullifying all the progress made in back-door negotiations on everything from agricultural cooperation to hospital coordination.

Many of the young university students in the crowd weren’t fooled by the nationalist rhetoric at the rally. Khaled, a student from nearby Birzeit University, was disillusioned with progress towards a viable state. “I don’t know what’s next. Nothing will actually change.” We were standing just outside the crowd with a group of younger girls. Khaled is twenty years old, wore a polo and slacks and was badly deprived of sleep. He studies accounting and worries about job opportunities when he graduates in three years; but today he was at the rally to enjoy the dancing and music.

Among the thousands of celebrators, nearly all the rally-goers spewing vitriol were foreigners. Occasionally a boisterous, overjoyed Brazilian man would come by and shout “Free Palestine and fuck the Jews, fuck the Jews!” He forced the yellow flag of Fatah into my hands and held a lanky British man in tow.

Khaled laughed at the Brazilian, saying “and this is why there is no peace.” When the hooligans came back and continued to harass us, I prompted them with the scenario Khaled referenced. “If it passes and nothing changes,” the Briton says, puffing himself up, “if nothing changes we’ll fight Israel again.” The two disappeared through the crowd. I turned to Khaled, who looked at me and shrugged.

Photo by Prescott Watson

Published on page 54 of the Fall 2011 issue of Leviathan.

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