Under dim street lights, we followed a map to a well-known bar in the wealthier part of the city, hoping to catch a bit of Ramallah’s acclaimed “cosmopolitan feel.”
As we walked into the bar, we were greeted by a tall, cheerful man with a light blue, quarter-sleeve shirt, buttoned up halfway.
Grinning widely, he said, “Welcome to the Apartheid State, my friends!”
Having just finished an academic semester in the city of Haifa, we were unfamiliar with hearing Israel being referred to as the “Apartheid State,” but not at all surprised.
We had ventured into the West Bank hoping to gain a more holistic picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and see the world from the other side.
When we arrived, residents were supporting the hunger strike of the Palestinian individuals held in Israeli prisons. Approximately 1,000 people participated in the hunger strike, which lasted 40 days.
There was a large demonstration in the city square, as well as posters of hands shredding the Balfour Declaration, and demanding the right to return to their lands located within Israeli borders.
After asking a police officer for directions, we arrived at our hostel. We were greeted by a local Palestinian man, Muhammad, eager to show off his hometown. The entrance of the hostel we stayed in was located on the side of an old, multi-level building with an industrial elevator. He directed me over to the large window of the hostel, overlooking the Jamal Abdul Nasser mosque as well as the local markets that bustle with activity each Friday.
Muhammad was quick to discuss the political situation of the region, pointing out the whiteboard that was kept updated with the latest news of Israel-Arab clashes. As he began to discuss the event, a pretty, tall, blonde European woman walked out, rushing to update the board. She had come to visit the West Bank during her year of travel, and decided to spend the remainder of her time in Ramallah, explaining the Palestinian perspective to Western travelers.
“Did you hear?” she said, visibly flustered. “A Palestinian boy was shot, and Israeli soldiers cheered, and passed out candy.”
She added the event to the board.
We continue our political discussion at the table, joined by the woman.
“What Israel is doing is just terrible,” she said.
“Do the Palestinians ever do anything as terrible as the Israelis do?” I asked, curious as to how she would respond. “Passing out candy and things like that…”
She neglected to make eye contact, and looked down at the wooden table we were seated at.
Sitting in a hostel filled with propaganda – everything from bullets and empty teargas canisters displayed on shelves to newspapers plastered on the wall – we knew we had to take everything with a grain of salt.
The hostel’s political narrative dates back to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, promised even earlier by British Mandatory powers in the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
Israel’s territory stretches across lands that were previously inhabited by both Jews and Arabs. Hostility between Arab and Jewish populations increased as Israel began to promote its Jewish identity. Sixteen years later, Israel’s annexation of the West Bank territory, a land with a predominantly Arab population, as a result of the Six Day War with Jordan in 1967, added to the tension.
Today, a majority of Arabs in the West Bank (often referred to as the Palestinian territories, or just “the territories”) view the Israeli government as an occupying force, and often refer to it as the “Apartheid State,” a comparison to the institutionalized segregation and discrimination in South Africa.
Self-identified Palestinian residents in the West Bank remain under the administrative authority of the Palestinian Authority (P.A), founded by Fatah in 1994.
Flags of Fatah, Jihadi al-Islami, and other Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups could be seen waving proudly in the streets of Palestine.
Muhammad continued the tour of the hostel, promoting the literature in the lobby that explained Palestine’s history and culture.
Pamphlets and books that described Palestine’s beauty “from Gaza to the Dead Sea” littered the side tables, and frequently mourned the loss of the remaining land to the “occupying forces.”
The walls were filled with local art, expressing the sentiments of the Palestinian population. One such piece was an image of Aymad; a cartoon symbol of a young boy, representative of the solidarity between displaced and distraught Palestinians, longing to return home.
“Under Trump, things have only gotten worse for the people of Ramallah,” Muhammad continued. “He spreads racism everywhere and clearly hates Muslims and all Palestinians. I don’t even know if Clinton would have been better. It’s a problem in the West overall.”
He allowed us to settle in for the evening, and described our plan for the following day. We were to go around the city, seeing “the real Palestine” and eventually visit a refugee camp.
“Tomorrow’s tour of the camp will be difficult, but I think it’s something you need to see,” he said.
As we walked the streets of the city, he pointed out the mourners tent located at the city square.
He described it as a place where parents of imprisoned individuals would go to spread awareness of the hunger strike and other protests, as well as the injustices committed by “the other side.”
During his explanation, he referred to the the posters scattered across the city, with faces and names of those in prison.
I asked him what the prisoners had done to deserve their sentence.
“Oh you know,” he began, “it’s just racism. The usual.”
“Oh okay, so petty crimes,” I inquired further. “Were any of them convicted of something significant? Like murder, or terrorism?”
“Well, most of them had links to Hamas or Hezbollah, so more than likely, yes. But it’s just racism from ‘the other side’ ya know?” he concluded nonchalantly.
I was baffled by the casualty in his tone.
We continued down the roughly paved roads, en route to the Al-Amari Refugee Camp.
Around 11 a.m., we came up to a road with an abnormal lack of activity for an early afternoon. Storekeepers appeared to be closing, and shoppers rushing away from storefronts. Our hostel keeper was caught off-guard by this, until he asked one of the local shopkeepers for an explanation. In Arabic, the shopkeeper reminded him about the Commercial Strike that would last from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. that day.
“Be sure that no one sees you working,” he warned.
The Commercial Strike came to Ramallah by call from the National Committee to Support the Prisoners’ Strike, in effort to fight against the “occupation” with activities that would commemorate the Nakba, or catastrophe, of Israel’s establishment in 1948.
The alleyways of the camp were narrow and dirty; lined with cramped housing units built with thin walls, and small windows.
“Here’s what happens,” he began. “The P.A. approaches the U.N. with a proposal to build a new school, or something, they get all of the appropriate signatures and paperwork, and they get it approved. All of that money then goes to them, and the people of Palestine don’t see a penny.”
Muhammad explained the living situations of these individuals, emphasizing Israel’s presence as the root cause. He blamed the Palestinian administrative authority for preventing the funds from getting into the hands of those in need, and criticizing the West for not having a hand in rectifying this injustice.
“So what do you want us to do about it?” an economics student from the U.S. asked.
“I want you [the West] to make sure that the funds go where they need to go. I’m tired of this government corruption, from here and the West!”
“OK. But you don’t want U.S. presence, influence, or intervention?” the student questioned.
“No, of course not,” he answered, and stopped taking questions after that.
As we walked through the narrow alleys, a group of young boys began to follow us. “Hey, look at all of those [women]!” they shouted, drawing attention to our group.
“Hi! Hello! What are your names?” the boys asked.
They continued to follow us. One of the Europeans in our group utilized the one phrase he knew in Arabic “Marjaban, habibi! (Hello, my friend!)” The boys laughed, and continued to follow us.
The hostel keeper, clearly annoyed by the attention, told the boys to find their way back home.
Our tour ended in a small cafe where the hostel keeper was convinced they sold the best kanafeh, a sweet Middle Eastern cheese pastry. While inside, he discussed the plausibility of the notorious two-state solution.
“The reality of it is,” he began as he took a sip of coffee, “no one is really in favor of a two-state solution.”
“For the Jews, it would mean allowing Palestine to be self-sufficient and not inhibiting the resources that we would need to survive. Treating us like real equals.”
“For the Arabs, it would mean having to acknowledge the other side: the existence of an actual Jewish state, and that just won’t do for most of us here.”
He put down his coffee and pushed his knafe plate aside.
“The reality is, there will probably never be peace in the Middle East.”
An earlier version of this article appeared on Western Free Press.
Photo credits: Jael Sierra, Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko via Flickr.