Last night, I crossed through the infamous Kalandia Checkpoint, halfway between Jerusalem and Ramallah. To either side of the checkpoint, surrounded by lengths of barbed wire and swathed in darkness, lies the Kalandia camp, populated with nearly 10,000 refugees who fled the 1948 war that led to the creation of the state of Israel. The road leading to the checkpoint is ravaged and bumpy torn up from the construction of the nearly completed West Bank Security wall. The wall is tall and cement, as thick and nearly as long as the Berlin Wall was. On the lane leading out of the West Bank into Israeli territory, a long line of cars and trucks wait, some with their engines idling, others with their cars turned off, as young soldiers slowly let them through. But on the lane leading into Ramallah, we must only pass through a turnstile, like we're entering a carnival ride. Just on the other side of the checkpoint, there are makeshift kiosks, what the locals affectionately call their "Duty-Free Shops", selling sweets and cheap toys.
People in Ramallah, which came under the control of the Palestinian Authority during the 1993 Oslo Accords, live literally in a city on a hill. The city has experienced occasional curfews and riots, regular strikes, and high scrutiny from the Tel Aviv government, which in March 2002 invaded and bulldozed Yassir Arafat's Mukataa compound. But what I see is a thriving, thronging city full of coffee shops, internet parlors, boutiques, crowded open-air markets and traffic, whose air is saturated with the aroma of dates, arabic coffee, and exhaust. In short, any Arab city on the eve of Ramadan. Inside the cafes, those who won't be fasting discuss lunching options with greater fervor than they do the war in Gaza. Local newspapers, they say, announced that it would be prohibited for restaurants to open before 4 pm. Restauranteurs. Tonight, the restaurants and bars are crowded with youth (who are a considerable part of the population, as in all Arab cities these days). Unlike residents in the besieged cities and refugee camps in the other parts of the West Bank, Ramallah people are active, reasonably employed (average unemployment in the West Bank is at 30%, compared with around 45% in Gaza), and sociable.
This capital city is very small, only about 280.000 in population. But it still is a capital city, and with the constant presence of foreign journalists and aid workers, it feels both cosmopolitan and familiar at the same time.