When people talk about Palestine, or the Palestinian issue, they often think of politics. They focus on the Israelis, the Americans, the Arabs, the Muslims, al Aqsa, al Quds, the uprising. But they seldom think about the situation on the land, or the social structure in Palestine. It is not that nobody wants to consider other issues but the thinking has shifted almost entirely towards the PLO and Yasir Arafat, or the Zionists.
Events started to move fast in early 1995 when the Palestinian National Authority was suddenly imposed on the people. Nobody elected them, nobody chose them, nobody had any say. All of a sudden, they had Arafat and his private army, the PLO. Virtually overnight, everything changed. And in the three years since then, Palestine is not the same.
Before the imposed regime arrived, buildings in Ramallah district were one or two stories high. Now, in the middle of the most beautiful residential areas, high rise buildings have emerged. This is destroying the ecosystem in the area, and is disruptive for people living there. All of a sudden one finds a high rise in their backyard, 10 to 15 stories high. But no one knows exactly who will reside there, or often who owns them. The locals cannot afford to pay US$500 to $1000 a month rent, and cannot afford to buy apartment. So now one finds all those ugly and monstrous buildings, just sitting there empty.
Besides the PLO, many Palestinians who lived in the US, Europe, and Canada initially rushed back home, hoping that they would now have a country. Many sold their businesses or liquidated whatever sources of income they had, to rush to Palestine. But what they found was a very sad home, because they realized that there was no place for them. The new entity was only for the imposed Palestinian Authority, who came to stay in Ramallah and El Bireh, the two major cities of the 1967 lands.
It is important to refer to this area as the 1967 lands, not the West Bank. It is just as important to keep the date in referring to the 1948 lands, not ‘Israel’ or ‘Israel proper’, as some prefer. Using these dateless terms eases the realization that a criminal theft took place during 1948 and 1967. And now, with the PLO in place, another theft is taking place in the 1990s.
Many people are still trying to sort out what really happened in Palestine during these few years. Things changed so fast that people really do not know what hit them. Those who returned from the west started some businesses, but many have failed. They brought their children and enrolled them in schools, but the education system was non-existent. They wanted to start some sort of a life there, but they could not really do well because there was no infrastructure in the 1967 land. Dirt roads, scarce telephone lines, poor garbage collection facilities, and not a single traffic light were what they found.
The roads that people use in Palestine are from the days of British rule, built during the 1920s and 1930s. Today, while driving on one of these roads, motorists all of a sudden find a huge crater in the middle of the road. These were created by bombs in 1948 or 1967. The bomb-poked roads are used by Palestinian drivers only. Jews have built their own network of new and well-maintained roads, dividing Arab lands in the process, to link the Jewish colonies in the 1967 lands with those in the 1948 lands. They bypass Palestinian towns and Arab drivers are barred from driving on them.
The PLO will eventually build its own roads, no doubt. And if the current system of apartheid by license plates is any indication, these roads will provide only limited access to the local Palestinian population. The Palestinian Authority needs some new roads for itself, because its members drive the fanciest American and European cars that money can buy, purchased with the funds that Arafat collects to supposedly help the Palestinians living in refugee camps.
Other changes are apparent in the twin cities of Ramallah and El Bireh. Traditionally, the majority population of Ramallah is Christian, and El Bireh is Muslim. People of Ramallah are very conservative Christians, almost like the Muslims. There are absolutely no differences, divisions or problems between Christians and Muslims. In the past, one could walk through Ramallah and never see a single bar, even though it is Christian and they have no prohibition on alcohol. Now, bars have opened in Ramallah to cater to Arafat’s mercenary army and Arab tourists.
The local Palestinian population survived the 1948 occupation, the 1967 invasion, and the intifadah (1987-1993), which was very harsh and strenuous for everybody. They survived all these but they are not able to cope with the imposed regime. They do not know what to do with so many bars around, and with the drunkenness. Now people encounter beer cans on the street, and smashed beer, whiskey or alcohol bottles all over the place. This is something that Palestinians - Muslim and Christian - could have never imagined would happen in their lands.
With the bars and drinking, other aspects of the cultural invasion followed the imposed regime. For example, several brothels have opened up in Ramallah, and now Jericho boasts the first gambling casino in Palestine. The imposed regime is working hard to bring in all the latest western corruption.
In the midst of all this change, it is difficult to see the locals anymore. When the PLO arrived, it brought in people who somehow, in some distant way, were Palestinian, but who had no attachment to Palestine. One of them, who was supposedly a very great fighter in the PLO, and who now has a prestigious place as one of Arafat’s righthand men, was asked by a jubilant local resident, ‘how was your feeling when you finally returned to the land of Palestine?’ The brave fighter replied with an indifferent shrug, ‘I don’t know, just like going to any country.’
Like many of Arafat’s brigades, he had come to Palestine from Lebanon, and for him it was as casual as entering any other country. The land of Palestine, which many locals refer to as the holy land, made no difference to this mercenary in his PLO-funded bright red Audi.
The locals, or those who survived all the atrocities, are marginalized, and it is even hard to find them. They are so poor, tired and worn out that now they have become virtually invisible. Many are getting older, while the young men and women who fought in the uprising now have to go to work in Israeli factories to survive the skyrocketing cost of living, another recent accretion to the imposed regime. The intifadah generations now have to line up at four o’clock in the morning to find some way to go to the Israeli occupied lands so they can work the whole day and return in the evening with their very meagre wages.
People who are in the 1967 lands cannot go to visit families in Ghazzah, thanks to PLO-imposed travel restrictions. Only special PLO vehicles with colour-coded license plates can make the trip. This policy has resulted in many tragic consequences. The recent case of Bassem from El Bireh is instructive. His sick father was on the verge of dying and Bassem wanted to visit him in Ghazzah, to be with him before he died. But the PLO denied him permission.
Bassem’s father died. His brother was in prison, and the family was emotionally devastated. But it does not matter because the PLO officials figure that cases like Bassem’s are not important. They do not factor into the Palestinian Authority’s mentality toward locals.
Palestinians living in exile, who have known and loved the land of Palestine for decades, can no longer identify with the place they used to know. Old Palestine has died with their grandmothers. A page has been turned, and they do not know the place any more. Some will continue to visit, but may never get over their grief. They just cannot seem to figure out what really happened in a few years.
They do not see the locals they knew anymore. Instead, there are people all over whose faces do not belong to the land of Palestine.
Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1998