I was staring out the window of my office today, looking down from the seventh floor of this building that is also a shopping mall in the middle of Ramallah. I was watching a group of cab drivers sitting on stools in front of their cars, sipping tea and blasting music. All the stores were open, and it seemed as though the entire city had decided to go shopping on their lunch break. If I leaned far out the window I could probably see the “Stars and Bucks Cafe” down the road, but I wasn’t going to risk it from this height.
Staring down at the roofs of apartments I noticed that they all had satellite TV attachments along with the black tanks that hold each family’s water. Two girls were goofing around in the middle of the street, clearly trying to get the attention of the fifteen-year-old boy that was trailing behind. They looked like any teenager: low rise jeans, trendy t-shirts, hoop earrings, and purses that were far too adult for them to be holding. I glanced back at my tea-drinking cab drivers just as one of them was standing up to stretch. His angle changed, revealing one missing leg and a limp hanging arm. My mind flashed back to pictures I had seen of this city, only a few years back when it was under 24-hour curfew and saturated with Israeli tanks. It’s hard to believe it, looking down on the busy streets now with its citizens dancing around in the daily business of life. Every time I begin to feel comfortable in this city, every time I being to forget that I’m living in an occupied land, all the pain of Palestine that Ramallah’s glitter and glisten manages to conceal comes seeping up to the surface.
I am living in “Area A” of Palestine, where tanks and soldiers do not frolic about as they do in the villages. These days most of Palestine is going hungry, but it seems as though the country has pumped all the money it has into the city of Ramallah. It’s been leaving me with the false impression that Palestinians could live their lives free of oppression if they isolate themselves only to the cities.
The other day I was talking with my friend about Bethlehem and how long the journey is from Ramallah, even though it’s very nearby. He said to me, “I love Bethlehem, but no way will I go there now. Why would I want to travel through all of those checkpoints and have a [seeming] 15-year-old point his gun in my face and decided if I can pass. I’d rather stay here.” I guess the reality of the occupation is unavoidable, no matter where you hide.
For two days now, I have come to the office and immersed myself in reading about the intricacies of the Israeli military court system, and the life that Palestinian prisoners must endure. So much of what I read seems miles away, but in reality it’s right in front of my face. Two days ago, the mother of one of our organization’s clients died. He has been imprisoned for a number of years and the lawyers petitioned for his release to attend the funeral. Unsurprisingly, their request was denied. While Israeli prisoners are permitted to speak with their families, receive visitors on a regular basis, and even take a “vacation” to attend weddings and funerals, this man was not even permitted to call his family’s home in order to give his condolences.
Last night my friends and I drove outside the city center to spend a nice evening at an outdoor café. We drove up to the top of the hill and looked out over all of Ramallah. Our friend pointed to the large highway down below where only Israeli settlers are permitted to drive and then directed my attention to Ofer Military Camp. This is one of 27 detention centers where Palestinian prisoners are being held, five of which are located in the West Bank. I had just read that afternoon that prisoners in Ofer sleep in oil soaked hangers that were once used to store Israeli military vehicles.
Prisoners are often required to buy their own food, or to rely on their families to bring meals when they come to visit. However, most prisoners can’t afford to purchase food, and all family members have been forbidden to visit their sons and daughters since the capture of one Israeli soldier in Gaza several months back. My new employers explained to me that forcing detainees to buy their own food from the prison canteens is only one of many ways that the Israeli government profits off of the thousands of Palestinians that they have captured in recent years. Apparently prisoners are also forced to pay a fine for any small infractions that they commit, such as breaking a chair or yelling too loud in their cell. Palestinian prisoners have paid over 3 million dollars in fines just last year. I had always wondered how Israel could afford to carry out these arbitrary mass arrest campaigns. Now I know.
After a beautiful night at the café, I returned home to sip more tea on my balcony. Through a window, I could see my neighbor’s son watching TV and his mother washing dishes in the sink. The young kids in Ramallah were still out in the streets, undoubtedly heading off to a party or a bar. A large spotlight drifted across the city, following cars and shining into the windows of each home. I followed the beam to the top of the hill in the distance. There sits the Israeli settlement of Psgot, with its cluster of identically designed tan condominiums. Every night this week the police station inside the settlement has shined a spotlight down on Ramallah, and I’m sure it will continue every night that I am here. One more reminder that the fate of Ramallah does not belong to its citizens, or even to its municipality. Every time I trip over tank tracks while walking to work, I am forced out of my haze of normalcy. Every time I meet a new colleague only to be confronted with the bullet scars up and down his arms, I remember what it means to be Palestinian. And every time I head off to the beautiful city of Jerusalem for the weekend while my new friends are forced to remain home, I remember what drove me to come here.