Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1) (Sunday 5 February)
PREVIOUS: Introduction to Jerusalem
We were not staying in Jerusalem for the second night, so we had to get to Ramallah. Buses in Jerusalem are segregated by destination, with West Bank towns north of Jerusalem served by a bus station near the Damascus Gate. The clean, modern bus trundled up the road through the northern suburbs of Jerusalem, alongside a new tram route and through pleasant looking suburbs, then some rather scruffier areas on the edge of town. So far, so normal – but then BANG. You’re up against ‘the Wall’.
The Wall is far from a straight line, but we’ll come to that soon. First, its physical presence. It is surpassing ugly. It is a 4-8 metre high ripple of prefabricated grey concrete, with no concessions to any aesthetic except brutalism. It is dotted with watchtowers and it is a sinister, alienating architectural imposition on this already broken landscape.
Like its erstwhile Berlin counterpart, it has started to attract graffiti artists. At the Qalandia checkpoint, the main road crossing between Jerusalem and Ramallah, there are some rather idealised murals of Yasser Arafat and Marwan Barghouti.
The ugliness of Qalandia spreads out from the checkpoint; there’s a wilderness of concrete, rocks, litter and dirt surrounding it. Traffic is frequently backed up for miles around it from the Palestinian side. Seeing it once makes one depressed. Seeing it every day must rot the soul.
The crossing point is at the end of the runway of what used to be Jerusalem’s airport, Atarot/ Kalandia. It has not been used by air traffic since the start of the second intifada in 2000, and some peace plans involve reopening it as either the main Palestinian airport serving East Jerusalem and Ramallah in particular, or a shared-sovereignty joint airport. But for now it remains closed to traffic, a site some on the Israeli side eye up for a possible settlement.
Ramallah is really an overgrown small town, quite normal in most respects with the usual balance of scruffy and pleasant-looking areas, rather randomly thrust together. It reminded me a little of other small towns suddenly promoted to capitals, such as Zagreb or Tallinn. One would be on what looks like a suburban avenue and then there would be a Palestinian Authority official building. One of them, established more in a spirit of optimism than practicality, is the Palestinian Monetary Authority. Probably the first bizarre thing one notices about Palestine is that the currency is the Israeli shekel, so even the hardest-core Hamas-supporting Palestinian is forced into some sort of accommodation with the Israeli state. It is incongruous to find oneself handing over banknotes depicting Israel’s founding fathers while deep in Palestinian territory.
We were staying at the Rocky Hotel in Ramallah. I really am not sure why it is called that; as a description ‘rocky’ is about as distinctive around here as ‘icy’ in Greenland. Perhaps it’s a cinematic reference.
The Rocky is a pleasant enough place to stay. A little way along the corridor from my room was a meeting suite, which seemed to be doing a good trade in conferences (hence the number of UN vehicles in the photograph). Next morning I, and my other early-arriving colleagues, met the rest of the Labour 2 Palestine delegation and the formal part of the tour began. Breakfast was Middle Eastern in style, with pitta bread, salad, cheese and meat, but unfortunately the coffee was instant rather than Arabic. We made an early start in the tour bus that was to become very familiar, and headed south towards Jerusalem.
NEXT: Dystopia in Jerusalem