Two: Ween 3a Ramallah

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City: Ramallah
Location: West Bank, Palestine
Population: 35,140
Governance: Area A, Palestinian Authority

Ramallah was very different to what I had imagined Palestine, in particular the West Bank, would be like. At times, I would be walking around the streets and I would forget I was in Palestine, thinking instead that I was in any other Arab country. The fancy restaurants (and bars), tall buildings, 5-star hotels, flashy cars; it didn’t feel like the Occupied Palestine I had seen on TV or read about in the history books.

This was probably because of my naivety rather than anything else. Reading up on Ramallah’s history now explains to me part of the reason as to why this city seemed so img_20160806_165948different. At the moment, Ramallah is considered the ‘de facto administrative capital’ of Palestine. This is because it houses the main government building of the Palestinian Authority (PA) around the area of the burial place of the late Yasser Arafat in the Mukataa. Although the PA officially ‘governs’ Ramallah; Israel and by extension the IDF has control (as with the whole of Palestine) over certain things such as the movement of Palestinians around the West Bank, into Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as ‘security’ control which allows them free reign to perform arrests (or worse) in the area.

I’ve often heard of Ramallah being called a ‘bubble’ by Palestinians. Most use this term to describe the economic growth that it has experienced over the past decade, which does not reflect the economic situation of the rest of the West Bank and Gaza where poverty is widespread. The international aid poured into this city, as well as the return of wealthy expats, are what most believe to be, the reasons behind this economic spurt. However, sitting in the famous Rukab’s eating ice cream and hearing conversations in English, German, Spanish amongst other languages, made me feel like Ramallah was a bubble in all sense of the word.  It felt comfortable, eerily comfortable, like nothing wrong was happening in the world. It’s this sense of safety and security that I found most unsettling, and this was augmented after I had visited other cities in the West Bank and seen the drastically different situations there.

I heard from a Palestinian woman (living in the UK but coming to visit family) what her views were on Ramallah. She had warned us not to let the Ramallah delusion form our opinions on the realities of life in Occupied Palestine. I read an article recently that summed up: “Ramallah is a useful mirage for the Israeli authorities but behind the façade of economic peace and stability the Israeli government continues to colonise the land it is occupying illegally. The international community has been blinded by the limited economic success of Ramallah, while the rest of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip remains constricted in the most brutal way imaginable.” (MEMO), although written 2 years ago, this view still resonates with many today.

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However, it would be wrong to assume that everyone living in Ramallah was happy to be living in this bubble and conforming to the unjust society around them.  I would suspect that the majority of the inhabitants are not happy with the situation to say the least. They still live under occupation, and this is clear as soon as the buildings start coming in to view as the rickety servees drives in from Jerusalem. The black or white plastic cylinders on top of all the homes, buildings and apartment blocks are a stark reminder of the reality. These cylinders contain the water ‘allowance’ given to Palestinians by the ‘state of Israel’. Palestinians do not have the luxury of an unlimited supply of running water; water in the West Bank is a commodity controlled by the occupier. The average Palestinian family would be lucky to have enough water to last through the month, because once the tank fill is emptied, you would be required to wait until the next month, or sometimes wait until the Israeli’s decide to refill it. Of course, no such issues arise for Israeli citizens who enjoy a 24-hour unlimited supply of water illegaly siphoned from Palestinian land.

I was speaking to a friend of mine whilst I was in Ramallah, describing the views and telling her of my surprise at what I had seen life to be like, and she replied, “Do you blame them for living?”. That’s what it comes down to under occupation, earning enough to provide for your family. A lot of these families in Ramallah work hard to earn a living and go through daily struggles I couldn’t even begin to img_20160802_194506imagine. Who was I, an outsider, to come and judge their lifestyles and means based on the few main roads I had traversed in the centre of the city. It is important for us to try to understand the scope of the occupation. The issue of Palestine goes far
beyond an attempt to land-grab by illegal occupying forces. The occupier wants more than to take land, he wants to spread fear, unrest, enforce an ideology, and wipe out a people. It is this living in fear that we do not -nor will ever – comprehend as outsiders. The strong ones who have felt loss and pain will rise up and use all means necessary to resist. But not all are strong and react in the same way. Some are afraid, and have also experienced so much loss and pain that I could not blame them for getting on with their lives and trying, above all else, to keep their loved ones alive.

I overheard a conversation once while on a servees between the driver and a fellow Palestinian passenger. The driver had been in his profession for more than 30 years, his working life spent navigating roads and transporting people. “The IDF are ruthless” he was saying, I listened in on the ensuing conversation in Arabic, peeling my eyes off the beautiful mountainous landscape outside the window. “My friend has just had his taxi taken away, and not just that, he was fined a ridiculous amount of shekels, and he’s even been taken to court”. “Ya Allah, leesh? Allah yihlikhum”, the passenger asked why. The driver replied that his friend had been driving on a main road shared by Palestinians and Israeli settlers leading to Ramallah, when a settler began manoeuvring dangerously alongside his taxi and attempting to overtake him. The friend was not breaking any rules and was going below the speed limit, but just as this settler car overtook him, it drives up in front and brakes sharply. Thankfully, the friend was not speeding but a collision could not have been avoided, the friends taxi had rammed into the settlers car. The settler comes out of his car shouting and yelling profanities, takes the friends number plate and calls for IDF soldiers. The settler demanded compensation and took the matter to court. “Why didn’t your friend tell the soldiers what really happened, it would have been clear from the position of the impact that he was not at fault” the passenger asked. The driver scoffed, “You think they would have believed him. That’s what the Zionists do, they intimidate us and think they control us, what could he have done?”. “Allah yihlikhum w yintaqim minhum ya Rab”. The journey continued silently, it seemed like a sense of deflation and powerlessness had just filled the servees. “Luqmat 3eesh”. Sustenance.

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Mediterranean migrants: Facebook smugglers offer under-3s go free with ‘TripAdvisor-style feedback’ for voyage to Europe

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Written for: IBTimesUK

Facebook p[ages used by human traffickers

(Human traffickers use images of flashy cruise liners to advertise the deadly journey to Europe)

People smugglers are using Facebook to advertise transport for Syrian refugees from Turkey to Britain for up to £10,000 ($16,000, €14,000) per person.

On Arabic profile pages littered with images of luxurious cruise liners and even testimonials by former clients, smugglers promise routes from Turkey to Greece, Italy and the UK, and list telephone numbers for refugees to contact.

One smuggler contacted by IBTimes UK said he could arrange transport from Izmir in Turkey by boat to Greece for a cost of £1,720 and then an onward flight to the UK.

When asked about the ability of Syrian refugees to reach the UK, he said, in broken Arabic: “We offer flights from Greece to the UK, very easy.”

Asked what documentation a refugee might need, he said: “No passport needed, we do everything” but added that price for travel from Greece to the UK was considerably more expensive, at €15,000.

The migrant crisis has been in the spotlight after almost 700 people died on 19 April in what was called the Mediterranean’s worst disaster.

Reports say 2015 has been the worst year yet for the migrant deaths, with 1,500 killed since the start of the year. Many of the migrants are from Africa and the war-torn countries of the Middle East, mostly Syrians fleeing the five-year-long bloody civil war.

IBTimes UK called smugglers pretending to be a Syrian refugee in Turkey looking to get to Europe and ideally the UK, raising concerns about the recent spike in deaths.

But traffickers said the trip was safe and went into detail about exactly how refugees can evade the authorities and how much it would cost.

One Turkish man quoted the rate from Turkey to Greece as £1,460 per person but said children under the age of three travelled for free and under-12s were half price.

Another man who spoke only broken Arabic said: “You leave your money in the office, and we take you to a Greek Island by boat, 30 minutes. You stay there for a day or two, all costs on us including accommodation… then five or six-day travel by boat to Italy.”

He added it is also possible to stay in Greece and not continue the journey to Italy, saying with confidence: “Greece have announced new laws that will provide asylum for Syrian refugees, no need to worry.”

On the safety of the trip, he said: “It will be a small yacht with around 70 to 80 people on board. You are with other families, sometimes five sometimes eight, not alone, don’t worry.”

Not all of the services offered by traffickers involve travel by boat, though. One post from 23 March announces new travel services by air to Canada, Holland, France and Britain.

The price quoted for air travel to Britain was a staggering €14,000, the equivalent of £10,029 per person. Children under 10 are given the concession of half that price.

“The way [this works] is through a regime-issued [Syrian] visa to be collected from the embassy, payment is at arrival in the main office [in Turkey],” the site claimed.

A regime-issued passport for Syrians means the Assad government, still battling an uprising led by rebel forces since 2011, has given its stamp of approval for a person to leave the country. Rebel fighters and their families as well as political dissidents are not allowed this luxury.

In the review section of the page, other accounts, mainly personal, use the space not to review the services of this smuggling company but to advertise their own services arguing competitive prices. “There is a trip from Istanbul to Libya by plane… once you reach Libya you take a boat to Italy,” one profile writes in Arabic providing a phone number for more details.

But a comment on this post shows the grim reality that not all these accounts can be trusted: “They are entrappers, they entrapped me twice,” with another comment posting: “And we die halfway through the sea,” in reference to the recent crisis with the capsizing of a boat carrying immigrants off the coast of Italy killing hundreds.

Syrians fearing for their lives and the lives of their families still look to these services as an escape to freedom in Europe. Out of the estimated nine million Syrians who have fled since March 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that around 150,000 have declared asylum in the European Union. But Syrians have been encouraged by the pledge of the UN member states to resettle a further 33,000 people.

Britain has come under scrutiny by human rights groups as the number of refugees accepted into the UK since the start of the Syrian crisis is just 143.

Another day, another complaint of ‘offensive anti-semitic’ behaviour.

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Just a short while after the remarks of the Liberal Democrat MP on the treatment by Israeli jews of Palestinians, sparked outrage in the Jewish community and saw the term ‘anti-Semitism’ being used left, right and centre, another case has caused offence. This time a cartoon, printed in The Sunday Times, by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe depicting Israeli PM Netanyahu building a brick wall on the bloodied bodies of Palestinians. Of course, after the powerful Jewish voices on the Board of Deputies of British Jews screamed in anger their offence at the ‘anti-Semitic’ cartoons, a public apology quickly surfaced from media mogul Rupert Murdoch. 

It seems quite a big deal has been made from this cartoon, I understand how this may have upset some Jewish people, as the timing came around Holocaust Memorial Day, and some may have drawn comparisons between the two. However, to be named anti-Semitic is for me, uncalled for. Upon seeing the cartoon, it may be seen, as the cartoonist himself expected it to be, as an attack on Netanyahu’s policies as the PM, in which his re-election raised issues of his continuation in building the wall in the West Bank separating the Palestinian land from the occupied territories, as well as his continuation to build settlements, deemed by the UN to be illegal. Not, as many interpreted it to be, as an attack on the Jewish people. If a cartoonist was to depict the British PM’s policies in a negative light (as we have already witnessed with Tony Blair), I don’t think the British public would be offended in themselves and outraged by such portrayals. 

It feels as though in this time and age, our minds have become so riddled with political correctness that our thoughts and actions have become constricted. I am in no way suggesting that people should have the liberty to intentionally cause offence to a particular religion or belief, as I am myself completely against that, but when it comes to politics, parallels are constantly trying to be drawn, and reading between the lines has been taken to a whole other imaginative level. For example, if this cartoon depicted in a negative light a certain figure in the Jewish religion, I would have been the first person against it, as I have been when the Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet in a negative light surfaced (but that is a very complex situation that I will not delve in now), as that was seen as an attack on a religion, and not simply an (alive) politicians policies and way to ideals on ruling a country.

Some may think that my comparisons are unjustified, and that all the above are very different instances, however, this is how I see it in my uncomplicated-with-political correctness mind, and they are just my personal thoughts. Therefore, if I have caused any offence it was unintentional.