Bowling in Ramallah

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December 6, 2010

Recently I went bowling at a new hotel in Ramallah. Afterwards, my friends and I played billiards, then enjoyed a video game on a Playstation with a plasma TV screen. I haven’t had time yet to check out the new five-star luxury hotel branch of Movenpick, but I did manage to attend the opening of a slick, modern new bar [and yes, it had Grey Goose (tm)].

Recent articles in the Western media have been quick to pick up on the West Bank’s economic good news—see this New York Times article on Ramallah’s nightlife and a report on Nablus in The Wall Street Journal. It’s good that the media is finally offering a positive picture of Palestinian life. It’s also good that Ramallah’s people are living more comfortably, and in better conditions. But, the growth so visible in Ramallah and Nablus is not present everyone in the West Bank. The UN estimates that 47% of people in Ramallah still live in poverty. It is a select crowd—diplomats, expats, and those middle-class Palestinians who choose this way of life–that you find at the bowling alleys, the new bars, and the fancy restaurants.

The IMF reports that the economy of the West Bank grew 9% in the first half of 2010 economic growth. Yet, what this fact, and the media stories on West Bank prosperity obscure, is that most of this economic growth is fueled by outside aid, especially from European countries. This aid does not reflect the actual economy of the West Bank. Unless this aid leads to the creation of a self-sustaining economy, it will only create an artificial bubble that will burst when foreign governments decide to spend their euros elsewhere.

The recent spotlight on the positive economic changes in Ramallah created by this bubble economy has its own dangerous consequences. More and more people are saying: “Look, the economy is growing in the West Bank, people are living normal lives and having fun. Everything is fine.” The reality, however, is that the occupation continues on a daily basis. My Palestinian friends still are not able to travel 10 miles and enter Jerusalem. Settlement construction has resumed and even during the settlement “freeze,” building in fact occurred throughout the West Bank. Israel still conducts nighttime raids into Palestine and the fragmentation of the West Bank (by the wall, roads, and settlements) continues. As The World Bank reported: the apparatus of control itself has gradually become more sophisticated and effective in its ability to interfere in and affect every aspect of Palestinian life, including job opportunities, work, and earnings. Extensive and multilayered, the apparatus of control includes a permit system, physical obstacles known as closures, restricted roads, prohibitions on entering large areas of land in the West Bank, and most notably the Separation Barrier. It has turned the West Bank into a fragmented set of social and economic islands or enclaves cut off from one another.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who is all for emphasizing the economic growth in the West Bank, has stated multiple times that his goal is for an “economic peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. He sees this economic peace as a substitute for a real solution to the conflict — a Palestinian state. My friend Sam Bahour wrote in an article in The Guardian: ”Under the cloak of Israel’s Prime Minister’s slogan of ‘Economic Peace’, Israel has been able to pull the wool over the world’s eyes as they create irreversible facts on the ground.” Economic growth is being used to normalize the occupation and create a facade that everything is fine, when the truth is the occupation continues and is in fact growing in many ways.

I am the first to admit that I enjoy the cafe scene and the new comfortable living conditions I have found in Ramallah, but I am always quick to remember that this is only one small component of life here. It is crucial to raise awareness of the cultural richness—and fun—to be found in Palestine, to counter the frequent portrayal of Palestinians in the media as the “other,” as people who are unlike us. Yet, the suffocating effects of the occupation also must not be forgotten. In the end, the economic growth and media attention it receives is not bringing a political solution to the conflict. As Palestinian Zahi Khouri wrote in The New York Times: “I am all for economic development, but not as a substitute for peace — nor its manipulation by Mr. Netanyahu to mange and normalize the occupation…Self-determination and statehood alone hold the keys to unlocking Palestine’s economic potential.”

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