The announcement appeared on a Japanese website: the first sushi restaurant had just been opened in Ramallah. I immediately thought of the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and his policy for the West Bank. With the peace talks going nowhere, why not create the modern trappings of a real country that one day could become a real state? New roads, banks, “five-star” hotels, office towers, condominiums. He calls it “ending the occupation, despite the occupation.”
A visitor to Ramallah is immediately struck by the cranes and scaffolding of fresh construction. That and the Palestinian gendarmerie in red or green berets patrolling the streets, young men trained and equipped largely with US money, and overseen first by US Lieutenant General Keith Dayton and since last October by Lieutenant General Michael Moller.
This is the new Palestine, collaborating with Israel and the US to smarten up the West Bank and keep down Hamas, even though Prime Minister Fayyad was never elected, and Hamas won the last Palestinian elections in 2006. Under President Mahmoud Abbas, and his prime minister, the West Bank is supposed to outdo Islamist Gaza in prosperity and security. The Soho Sushi and Seafood Restaurant had to be linked to this enterprise.
Located inside the Caesar Hotel, a modern building in a plush Ramallah suburb, the Soho restaurant was empty when we arrived for lunch. Like the mausoleum of Yasser Arafat, erected in polished Jerusalem stone on the ruins of his old headquarters—shot to pieces by the Israeli army during the last years of his life—everything looked brand new, shiny, still unused. Phil Collins was singing softly in the background. A friendly waitress with long curly dark hair and black pants took our orders for sushi rolls. Her name was Amira; she was a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem.
Amira explained that the seven Palestinian sushi chefs employed by the hotel had been trained by a Japanese lady from Tel Aviv. They had had to learn how to make sushi in two months. The result, so far, was mixed. Business was picking up, Amira said. But there was a slight drawback. The Jordanian man who sold the land to the Palestinian owners of the Caesar Hotel had stipulated that alcohol may not be served on the premises.
Although she had never been to the US, Amira carried an American passport, as well as Palestinian identity papers. Her parents had become US citizens before returning to Palestine, where her father taught Arab literature in Bethlehem. This was her home, Amira said, in perfect English. She explained that she had been trained in restaurant management in Spain, in the Basque country. The Spanish, she found, were confounded by her, since they expected all Arab women to wear a veil. When she went to parties, she said, it was always the same story:
A Spanish guy would ask where I was from. When I said I was from Palestine, he would give me a long lecture about how horrible the Israelis were. Then he’d turn round and leave me stuck on my own. You see, they think we’re all terrorists. It’s very sad.
She repeated this phrase a lot, Amira. It was very sad, for example, that it could take three, four, even five hours to get to Bethlehem from Ramallah, depending on the Israeli checkpoints. Normally the trip would only take thirty minutes, via Jerusalem. But Ramallah is surrounded now by Israeli settlements. And these are connected by a network of roads only Israelis are allowed to use. Ramallah is also cut off by the high concrete wall that divides Israel from Palestine. Israelis are not permitted to visit Ramallah, or Bethlehem. Some Palestinians have permits to go to Jerusalem. Some live there. But it can take them three, four, or five hours to get there, even though the trip can be made in fifteen minutes by car.
Amira also told me how hard it was for young Palestinians to find jobs on the West Bank, despite the new polish given to Ramallah, and how difficult it was to make ends meet, even if they did manage to be employed. A great deal of money keeps pouring into Palestine, from the US, the European Union, the Gulf states, and other Arab countries, to build hospitals, roads, hotels, and so on, but the territory’s relative isolation behind the wall is bad for business. It would help if Israelis could go there to spend money, but they can’t.
To get back to Jerusalem, I shuffled through the checkpoint with several hundred Palestinians. We were required to move slowly through a narrow tunnel of steel mesh, as though we were prisoners entering a high- security jail. There was an air of resignation. People didn’t talk much. When they did, the conversation was muted. Mothers tried to keep their children calm. Young men tapped nervously on their cell phones. Some people laughed at an anxious joke. You cannot allow tempers to fray when you are crushed together in a cage.
The odd thing was that Israeli soldiers were nowhere to be seen. No jeeps, no watchtowers or patrols. Once every ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty minutes, a green light would briefly start blinking, a gate would open with a loud clunk, and a few people at a time could proceed to the next gate. I was lucky. It only took an hour and a half this time. After the last gate shut behind me, I finally saw two Israeli soldiers through the tiny window of a small, airless office, young women of around twenty, giggling and chatting as they pressed the button that opened the gates, casually, with all the time in the world. A boring job, no doubt. They barely saw the Palestinians, whose documents they scrutinized before at last allowing them to emerge into the open air.
Every Friday afternoon, without fail, several hundred people, sometimes more, never less, gather on a dusty corner of East Jerusalem, a few minutes’ walk from the famous American Colony Hotel. They are there to protest against the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes. The Palestinians are thrown out, and Jewish settlers move in, dressed in the dark suits and black hats of their ultra-Orthodox faith. This is Sheikh Jarrah, a mostly Arab neighborhood. After the 1948 war, Palestinian refugees were resettled there, on what was then Jordanian territory, and were allowed to stay after the area was reclaimed by Israel in 1967.
This arrangement changed some years ago, when various Jewish organizations, religious and secular, decided to lay claim to homes that had belonged to Jews before 1948. The grounds for this are not always straightforward, sometimes relying on documents dating back to the Ottoman Empire whose provenance is often contested. In some areas, though not necessarily Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinians pretend that they are being evicted after selling their properties to Jews, a serious crime in Palestine. In any case, Palestinians do not have the same right to repossess their lost properties in West Jerusalem. It is all part of a wider Israeli strategy to gradually reclaim the whole of Jerusalem, including many surrounding villages, by moving Palestinians out, often forcefully, and Jews in. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once put it: “Jerusalem is not a settlement, it is the capital of Israel.”
The Israeli protest against these practices was started by Hebrew University students. They are joined every Friday by well-known academic and literary figures, such as David Grossman, Zeev Sternhell, Avishai Margalit, David Shulman, and even a former attorney general, who was born in the area, named Michael Ben-Yair. Some people shout slogans, sing songs, or carry placards saying “Stop the occupation!” or “Stop ethnic cleansing!” But most just turn up, every week, as a show of solidarity.
Apart from the young Arab boys who come to sell freshly squeezed orange juice to the protesters, there are not many Palestinians on the scene. This is less true of demonstrations outside Jerusalem. Here, the worst that can happen to a Jew is to be beaten up and spend a day in a police lockup. If a Palestinian is caught, he might lose his permit to live in Jerusalem, and thereby his home, his job, his livelihood.
The protests are lawful. Even so, at first the demonstrators were badly roughed up by the police who block off the road to the new Israeli settlements. Some people got clubbed, there was tear gas, elderly protesters were kicked to the ground. Broadcast on the television news, these scenes caused considerable dismay, and the police were ordered to show more restraint. This is still Jerusalem, after all. Restraint is not deemed quite so urgent in the occupied territories. And so the weekly protests continue, even as more Arabs are evicted and new settlers move in, if not here, then in other Arab neighborhoods: Silwan, Ras al-Amud, Abu Tor, Jabel Mukaber.
Protesters cannot do very much about this state of affairs. But even symbolic gestures count in a country where most people seem to have become hardened to the humiliation and ill-treatment of a minority living in their midst. The protests show that there is still a sense of decency in a nation coarsened by daily brutalities. In a way, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement is the most noble form of patriotism.
I usually went to the weekly protest with an old friend called Amira, like the Palestinian waitress. But my friend is Jewish, and Israeli. The evictions, dumping families into the streets, the behavior of the settlers, the general attitude of Israelis toward the Palestinians, trigger a rage in her that lasts well beyond the weekly protests. It is always there, smoldering, often expressed in a kind of loathing of her own country. She is disgusted by the sight of Israelis having a good time in bars, restaurants, and coffee shops while the Arabs continue to be humiliated. Some might interpret this as neurotic, a form of self-hatred. But I don’t think so.
“You must understand,” her husband, who is British, explained to me one Friday afternoon.
Amira is really very patriotic. She grew up full of Zionist idealism. She was taught to believe that Israel was a great experiment in building a new, more humane society. Disillusion began in her late high school years. Amira, and others, especially of an older generation, are furious because they have seen those ideals collapse. They can’t recognize their own country anymore. It’s as if they’ve been robbed of their dreams.
It was pouring with rain in Sheikh Jarrah, but still the Israeli protesters gathered, and the young Palestinian boys squeezed oranges under an improvised tent whose roof periodically released floods of rainwater. And there, as always, was Ezra Nawi, perhaps the most remarkable figure among the Israeli activists, pressing the flesh with the energetic bonhomie of a born politician.