Ramallah, Fighting for Survival (2010)

Ramallah, Fighting for Survival (2010)


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The barbed wire fence is never out of sight. It is no more than a few meters away almost wherever you go in this town of blocked roads and spiked gates.  In some patches, the spiky wire is draped around a reinforced steel and concrete wall, a foot thick.   And even to the jaded Indian eye, the graffiti and posters seem excessive.  Gun-toting men, many in uniform, are not an unusual sight. There is palpable tension in the air.

Yet, life goes on. There is an odd restaurant, a few furniture shops with gaudy stuff,  an unusually large number of fly-blown sweetmeat stalls, green grocers piled high with fruits, and an overwhelming number of greasy auto repair workshops.  Women clad from head to toe in heavy black chadors and colourful headscarves hurry past,  carrying huge shopping bags.  Taxicabs add a touch of glamour to this otherwise dreary landscape – all taxis are swanky Mercs or shiny Skodas although there are also donkey-carts and ramshackle sheruts on the streets.

We’re in Ramallah, the beleaguered and besieged capital of Palestine. Ramallah is a tiny enclave on the West Bank of the Jordan river – referred to simply as the West Bank. It is surrounded on three sides by Israel and its now infamous wall. In fact the wall cuts right through East Jerusalem, taking livelihood away from thousands of Arabs trapped on the Palestinian side.  East Jerusalem is where all the holy sites are – the Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall and the Church of Holy Sepulchre. Israel took over this land in the Six-Day War in 1967.

People in the West Bank are trapped as much by their geography as by their politics. Other than the barbed wire barricade separating them from Israel, the only border they have is with Jordan through what is called the King Hussein bridge. Palestine, like the erstwhile Pakistan, is in two bits. The other bit is the infamous Gaza Strip, virtually a strip of Mediterranean Coast adjoining Egypt and separated from the West Bank by vast stretches of Israeli territory.  The third piece, Golan Heights to the north adjoining Syria has been occupied and appropriated by Israel since 1967. Palestinians from Ramallah cannot go to Gaza and vice versa and when they travel abroad, should use the Jordanian airport.

It so happens that we’re in Ramallah on the very day the Israelis attacked the Turkish flotilla carrying food to Gaza.  Earlier in the day, we saw a silent demonstration outside the Church of Nativity in Bethelhem, en route to Ramallah.  Palestinian Arabs clad in black suits lined the walkway to the church holding placards in Arabic. We had asked Naif, our taxi driver about it, but he just mumbled something about some attack, but did not elaborate, perhaps so as to not scare us away – the odd customer that came his way on such a day.

Otherwise, Naif is as talkative as any Arab or Indian for that matter. He fills us up on his life and times in the eight hours we spend in his car that day – driving from Bethelhem to Ramallah and back.  He has four sons and the first one is in college, in Bethelhem, he announces not without a touch of pride. He claims to be forty although looks at least a decade older. Life in Palestine must be harsh. “We are always in the shadow of terror. Security checks, road blocks and wire fences have become part of our everyday life. Business is bad. How long can we go on like this?” he asks even as he swerves the Merc to avoid an on-coming sherut.  When I ask him whether he would like his children to leave Palestine to make their lives elsewhere, he is indignant. “This is our home, why should they go anywhere else?”

The Merc hurtles down dusty roads. It is 43 degrees Celsius outside, but this is an Arab Merc. Its air-conditioning doesn’t work, the engine rattles on the slopes and sputters at sharp turns. Outside, it is sheer wasteland with nary a redeeming feature.   It is so desolate I wonder aloud why people fight over something as barren as this. And I am promptly reprimanded by my 18-year old son at whose behest I have undertaken this journey in the first place. “Amma, this is the most hallowed piece of real estate on earth, how can you say this?” Of course, this is the land that gave birth to three major religions.  And however desolate, it is the only home Palestinians ever had although the question mark over their right to the land refuses to go away.  For the present, Palestine goes under the name of UN Mandated Territory, not a nation-state.

We head towards the tomb of Yasser Arafat.  The security is not just friendly, even somewhat deferential when they find out we’re from India. The monument is solemn and impressive, set against the backdrop of unremarkable buildings which constitute the Palestinian government offices.  A big poster of Arafat perches on one of the buildings.  We pay our respects to the man who fought bitter struggles all his life for the Palestinian cause. He died without finding a resolution, but kept the smile on his endearing face.

(Published in The Tribune dated Aug 22, 2010)

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