The West Bank prepares for (possible) independence

As Palestinian leaders push the U.N. for statehood, people get ready for an unlikely celebration

Topics: GlobalPost, Israel, Middle East,

The West Bank prepares for (possible) independencePeople in the West Bank wave flags in support of the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition in the United Nations, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011

RAMALLAH, West Bank — As if Independence Day were right around the corner, all of Ramallah is covered with flags.

Shiny new Palestinian flags adorn almost every light post and electrical pole, small plastic flags are strung like bunting in zigzags across downtown streets, and most cars proudly brandish two flags: that of Palestine and a white flag imprinted with a new logo combining Palestine’s colors with the letters U.N. in its official font, followed by the words Palestine State 194.

Officials in Ramallah and Jerusalem are gearing up for a confrontation on Friday at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. After a long period of all-too-public vacillation, a grim-faced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for New York under a heavy cloud of critique for having mismanaged the crisis.

The Palestinian leadership seems to have decamped en masse for New York, hoping to return with an historic gift in hand. If a vote is passed on their request to be upgraded from U.N. observer status to that of a fully recognized state, Palestine would become the U.N.’s 194th official member state.

That may still be a long time coming. The U.S. has since said it would veto the measure, which would kill it outright. The U.S. and other states are working instead to draft a statement that could lead to renewed talks between the two sides about a two-state solution.

Meanwhile, the streets of Ramallah are exuberantly set up for a party. Schools and many businesses will shut down Wednesday morning in order to ensure attendance at a pro-U.N. initiative march schedule for 10 a.m.

“There will be no more roadblocks!” is a ubiquitously expressed expectation.

“I am happy because we will be a state, there will be no more checkpoints, no more wall. We’ll be able to visit Tel Aviv, Haifa, Akko,” said Wissam Joaby, a well-suited 25-year-old lawyer.

Hosni Riziq Abdallah, 40, a pharmacist, said he expected that “Israeli soldiers will not enter the cities. Prisoners will be released.”

Neither anticipate violence if any of these hopes are quashed. “There will be no intifadah,” said Abdullah. “We are over that stage.”

Thorny details such as the as-yet undetermined borders of the future state of Palestine, its capital city or its ability to protect itself seem as distant as the moon.

“Just this morning someone was saying to me that after the vote, there will be no checkpoints,” said professor Asem Khalil, director of International Studies at Birzeit University. “People think it will be easy to go visit Jerusalem.”

“The Palestinian Authority has contributed to this popular illusion and this will soon have a very negative impact against the Palestinian people. There are not going to be immediate results, and there is going to be a lot of disappointment,” he added.

Mary Sharbain, 46, owns Sharbain’s, an English-language bookshop on the square, established in 1958 by her father-in-law.

“Everyone wants to live in a state, to do well, to be safe and quiet,” she said. Does she anticipate violence if the U.N. gambit ends in disappointment? “Inshallah, no.”

Her son, Joseph, 23, agreed.

“It’s not like it was 10 years ago. People are doing better, and they have more to lose,” he said.

Indeed, Ramallah is almost glistening these days, dotted with cranes and new construction. In the late afternoon, people stream in from Jerusalem and Nablus to smoke nargilehs or enjoy the classy coffee shops. The money changers who still slouch along Nahda Street, lining the Arab Bank’s back wall, chat, smoke and loosely clutch brick-sized wads of shekels without concern.

Nearby, on Manara Square, it is easy to buy a $120 Italian-made frying pan.

Ramallah provides an unusual urban mix in the Arab world. Many young women wander by in niqab or in jeans with their hair covered, but many others can be seen in tight tops and miniskirts, or outside Curves next to the new shiny Caesar Hotel, in spandex gym gear.

Two trainers on their lunch break at the TcheTche café, Manar Nakhleh and Nida Salameh, 22 and 24, support the U.N. initiative but warn that among their young friends — the kind that go out for beers and chicken wings — a potential for violence does exist.

“If it doesn’t go well, I can imagine some of our friends going to the streets,” Salameh said. “We don’t want it to happen, but we are afraid of another intifadah.”
Mua’yed Sayed, a 26-year-old pharmacist, said that Palestine is not yet ready for the responsibilities of full statehood.

“It’s not yet the right time. We need two more years to organize ourselves. People need enough money to pay for their employees,” he said. Sayed employs three full-time workers at his establishment. “I worry the Israeli settlers could turn to violence.”

Thafer Garran, 44, is a physical therapist who returned to Ramallah two months ago, after 16 years in Denver, Colo. “It’s a big adjustment for the kids, for me,” he acknowledged with a wry smile. “I loved Denver, but I belong here.”

“The U.N. vote might gain us some legitimacy, but what we want is independence, democracy and freedom. And going to the U.N. won’t give us that.

“We have to talk. We do not want to go back to the war zone we were living in 10 years ago. We want the 1967 border and East Jerusalem. We used to go to East — and West — Jerusalem all the time. Also today, I see Palestinians and Jews riding together on the same bus in Jerusalem, so I still think there can be a two-state solution.”

Professor Khalil said, “Despair is much stronger among the Palestinians than feelings of disappointment. The despair is so large that I don’t think they have the strength to start something new. We are also so divided between Gaza and West Bank. So I don’t think there will be violence on the side of Palestinians.”

He added: “But I expect this to be used by the Israeli authorities and by settlers as an excuse to exacerbate and continue violence on their side in the West Bank.”

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