Saturday, 21 July 2007

Life beyond the tourist trail

Unlike places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho, Ramallah isn't on the pilgrim/tourist trail. The first thing that came into my mind on hearing that we'd visit was its connection with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The town bears the marks of Israeli policy towards the West Bank - craters from F16 bombers; badly laid roads; refugee camps - and each person has their own story to tell.

Visiting Arafat's memorial within the PA compound also brought home the complexities of the Palestinian struggle. Whilst in the west, we might view the occupation as an Arab-Israeli conflict or a Palestinian-Israeli one, the reality is far more complicated. Sabeel will not talk to people from the two parties (Fatah and Hamas) because it cannot be seen to take sides within that particular fight. In the current climate, with Hamas' recent victory and the situation in Gaza, things are even more difficult. One of the first steps towards a final settlement will be a unified Palestinian front - but that is a long way from happening. What was clear in the compound was the high regard given to Arafat. Whilst many still condemn him as a terrorist, it should be remembered that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 following the Oslo Accords. For many he stands out as the first Palestinian to be taken seriously and listened to by the international community.

A marked contrast to the town was the atmosphere at the Ramallah First Group youth centre. Here was real, family life - just like anywhere else in the world on a Friday night. Tables with families gathered eating, whilst their kids went off to play football or basketball. Getting into a Sabeel vs Ramallah Youth basketball game and shouting as loudly as everyone else. Celebrating Palestinian culture with dabkha (folk dancing). But even here there were ramifications from Israeli policy. The dabkha group who taught us how to dance and showed off their routines were hoping to go to Norway on tour - yet the necessary permits and visas hadn't yet come through. Yet its tours like this that are needed to help others around the world gain a deeper understanding of Palestinian culture and the threat it faces.

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