Dispatch from Ramallah

A month ago I was in Israel and Palestine with some classmates. As part of the final “policy workshop” we must complete to get out of here with our shiny MPAs (estimated wage premium: +$3/year), we’re preparing a report on whether or not the two-state solution is still viable, and, if it isn’t, what alternatives U.S. policy makers should be pushing for. (The workshop is headed by former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer, who related a couple of depressingly telling stories from the trip in this recent piece he had in Foreign Policy.)

Like many American Jews, I had been to Israel before—not on Birthright, but as part of a lesser-known program designed to study the phenomenon of adolescent awkwardness by taking 14-and-15-year-old young Jewish science enthusiasts and sending them to Israel to be nerds. But it was very good to be back there, because now that I’m in my late twenties I obviously have more nuanced political views on the situation. And I was particularly interested in going to Ramallah, simply because it’s not a place a lot of Jews go to these days, and growing up as a Jew (even a liberal one) you don’t hear much about what’s going on on that side of the fence.

Once we got to Ramallah, a few of us were given a tour of parts of the Jordan Valley by Chris Keeler, an American working for the MA’AN Development Center. Chris, a very good guy who took our countless wide-eyed questions with aplomb, knows his stuff, so I emailed him to see if he’d be willing to chime in about the last few days in Ramallah. His email is after the jump, and you’ll notice that it doesn’t quite jibe with what you may have read in the big media outlets.

Despite the supposed significance of this week’s UNGA vote that led to the admittance of Palestine to the UN (observer status), there has been very little excitement in Palestine leading up to the vote. Certainly, receiving observer status in the UN is a significant victory for Mahmoud Abbas and his supporters; on Thursday night, as the results of the vote were announced, Palestinians gathered in the recently renamed Yasser Arafat Square in the center of Ramallah, waving flags and singing the national anthem.* Yet, for such a major step towards statehood, the Palestinian reaction was tempered. Many of the Palestinians I spoke to on Thursday night were on the streets to simply observe, rather than celebrate. Earlier that day, journalists entered one of the most popular coffee shops in Ramallah, looking for reactions from Ramallah-ites. Yet most Palestinians could not be bothered to look up from their games of cards.

The general apathy, outside of the few hardcore Fatah supporters, is a reflection of the true insignificance of this vote. Many Palestinians see the UN vote as yet another political distraction that will ultimately fail to end the occupation. Unending negotiations and repeated UN actions and resolutions have numbed many Palestinians to the political track. Futility in past political moves leaves Palestinians realistic about the significance of the vote.

Other Palestinians see the moves by Abbas as betraying the true Palestinian cause. Abbas’ recent comments about his right to return to his ancient village** (Safed, now in Israel) have led many to think that he has given up fighting for the rights of Palestinian refugees. They see the recent vote as another political move that has ignored the refugees.

Finally, many Palestinians have given up on the prospects of a two-state solution. With over 500,000 Israeli settlers throughout the West Bank, many Palestinians feel that a true Palestinian state would be impossible. These, typically younger, Palestinians regard the UN vote as a positive step down the wrong road. Pushing for a two-state solution, according to this group, is only distracting from the fight for equality within one state. The Israeli reaction—announcing the construction of 3000 more settler homes in the West Bank—is seen as proof that Israel is not interested in the creation of a Palestinian state.

These different groups have come together to create a general apathy surrounding the UN vote in Ramallah. Despite Al Jazeera images giving the sense that there are major celebrations in response to the new UN status, Ramallah has remained tepid. Most Palestinians see little evidence that this new development will lead to anything other than more disappointment. Yesterday, the day after the UN vote and the ‘major Palestinian celebrations’ Clock Square was quiet. The stage and screen were taken down unceremoniously and life returned to normal. Today, two days later, there is little talk about the UN. For most Palestinians, such political games mean very little as there is little chance the new status of the UN will end the occupation or improve their lives in any tangible way.

* Technically now named Arafat Square, all Palestinians I know still refer to it by its original name, Clock Square

** “I visited Safed before once. But I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there,” Abbas said, speaking in English from the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.