16 July 2012
Kate Nevens
(Former Chatham House Expert)


The recent demonstrations in Ramallah, the administrative capital of Palestine, caught the attention of the international media because of unexpected brutality displayed by the Palestinian security forces. 

Hundreds of people had taken to the streets to protest the policies of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the intended meeting between Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli deputy premier Shaul Mofaz. As the protestors marched to the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters (the al-Muqata) the police used brute force – including beating people with batons and metal chains – to disperse the crowds, and multiple people, including journalists, were arrested. 

On a visit to Ramallah just a few days after these events, little evidence of the demonstrations was visible. The al-Muqata was clean and white, untouched by graffiti or posters, the streets peaceful and free of security forces. Those still demonstrating had moved back out to Nabi Saleh, a small Palestinian village on the outskirts of Ramallah that serves as a stalwart for peaceful popular resistance against Israeli occupation and settlements.

The city itself betrays very little of its underlying discontents: tranquil wide open avenues lined with trees, sociable public parks and swanky coffee shops and ice cream parlours, brand new fleets of Honda taxis ready to take any well-paying customers wherever they want to go. New build high rises and construction projects pepper the city, creating the feeling of a prosperous economic hub, or at least bubble. 

Yet the money doesn’t quite mask everything. And it is not lost on the Palestinian population; making the occupation 'bearable' through restaurants and bars that would not look out of place in Manhattan, is not only a far reach from solving their political problems, but most likely entrenches them further. As perfectly asphalted new roads are built so that Palestinians can circumvent the difficult checkpoints and visit their families and friends, the steady, incremental increase of settlement construction, land restrictions and settler-only roads, carving up the West Bank, seems to be making the 'two state solution' all but an impossibility. Five star hotels open up their swimming pools in the city centre while the majority of Palestinians rely on virtually non-existent water supplies that are controlled and diverted by Israel. 

Talking to residents of Ramallah and its neighbouring villages, frustration is palpable. While ending the Israeli occupation is still number one on everyone's agendas, internal discontent with both the Palestinian Authority and the actions of foreign donors and investors, while hardly new, is clearly on the rise. The protests showed the increasing unpopularity of the PA's perceived commitment to negotiations and normalisation with Israel, but their domestic actions are also under scrutiny. Some are campaigning for direct elections to the Palestinian National Council, the highest legislative body, while others continue to focus on national reconciliation and the release of political prisoners held by Fatah and Hamas. 

The hand of foreign donors has also not escaped unnoticed: very few people have positive things to say about international engagement, which is seen as prolonging the conflict. Two polite, handwritten anti-NGO posters linger on Ramallah's central roundabout. 

The activists I spoke to were wary, sometimes offended, by comparisons to Egypt, Tunisia and the Arab 'Spring'. Most rejected the idea of a Palestinian uprising or 'third intifada', citing on the one hand the complexity of the Palestinian issue and the long history of activism, but also on the other problems of increasing personal debt and reliance on the PA for salaries, and apathy among the youth. But with the salaries owed by the PA to 160,000 employees reportedly not going to be paid this month, and the recent police brutalities (from a security force supported and trained by international donors), frustrations seem likely to grow.

Kate Nevens recently returned from a research-led trip to Palestine.