The new Nutella shop on Zahra street in downtown Ramallah was humming with business on Wednesday.
High school students Nur and her friend Sawsan had come into the city from the town of Katanna for memorial ceremonies marking the anniversary of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death 11 years ago, but they seemed more interested in consuming large amounts of creamy Nutella atop fresh warm crepes than in discussing politics.
“Yes, we’re having an intifada, but it’s not so bad here. It’s worse in Nablus or Bethlehem. It’s fun to come to Ramallah,” said Nur.
Arafat’s legacy and memory loom large among Palestinians in Ramallah, the sprawling city that functions as a de facto administrative capital for the Palestinian Authority. Graffiti of the former leader dot construction sites and walls. Sometimes he is painted posing with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, other times with Leila Khaled, the iconic female PFLP member who is always shown with her AK-47.
To commemorate his death the Palestinian leadership was once again pushing the argument that he was assassinated by Israel.
“Israel is responsible.... We still need some time to elucidate the exact circumstances of his assassination,” said Tawfiq Tirawi, the head of a Palestinian team investigating his death, in an interview on November 10 with Press TV.
In a gesture of recognition, Hamas handed over Arafat’s villa in the Gaza Strip to the PLO. The home includes a pool and tennis courts, according to local Gazan sources.
At noon, central Ramallah was in the grip of the usual traffic chaos, with a heavy presence of students and youth who had been bused in to memorialize the leader. Cars festooned with yellow Fatah flags drove back and forth, and Palestinian policemen kept people moving.
Men in fezzes and traditional outfits from the 19th century served piping hot drinks out of large samovars strapped to their backs. Here and there, green vans and Land Rovers with Palestinian Preventative Security personnel kept an eye on the throngs.
Down at the KFC, which lies improbably halfway between Al-Manara Square and the Mukata presidential compound, dozens of families were eating.
Gabriel Sassoon, a former foreign media adviser to the Labor Party, who had come into town to see what it was like before a trip abroad, was surprised at the modern creature comforts.
He’d heard about the KFC and wanted to see for himself before heading back to Tel Aviv.
“Ramallah is not so much a city as an overgrown town with an undercurrent of seething rage and frustration,” he said. “The traffic at Kalandiya [checkpoint] was such that it seemed as if half the anger against the occupation was a case of long-term pent-up road rage.”
But he said the city seemed relatively safe, not like the stories one hears in the media.
As if to bolster those stories, a few kilometers away in the mid-afternoon hundreds of youth gathered to march toward the DCO checkpoint northeast of the city. The checkpoint lies in a muddy flat field below Beit El. It is often used by diplomatic and foreign traffic, and has been the scene of frequent clashes in the last month.
A large concrete spire dominates a traffic circle on the Palestinian side of the checkpoint.
Here a dozen ambulances from the Palestinian Red Crescent gathered, and hundreds of youth, most under the age of 18, went forward to throw stones at three IDF jeeps that had blocked the road.
“We’ve had 50 injured already,” said a young PRC volunteer named Sami. “We also have some 60 injured and seven shot with live fire at Tulkarm.”
The Palestinian Health Ministry claimed more than 200 had been injured in ongoing clashes throughout the day throughout the West Bank.
The clashes came amid an EU decision to publish guidelines for member states that could result in labeling products produced over the Green Line by Israelis. They also came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the US stressing his commitment to peace.
Palestinians gathered at the checkpoint didn’t think peace would ever come.
“Arafat was murdered!” said a man when asked if they were commemorating Arafat’s death.
“They shoot at our school where I study.... We can’t sign an agreement with the Israelis,” said one girl who studies in Ein Yabrud.
“We can’t have peace with them, after what they’ve done. Our people were kicked out; they became refugees. We can’t accept a division of this country. We could never go home or visit our relatives; look at the situation in Gaza,” another young woman said.
Up ahead boys had set a dumpster on fire, and the thick black smoke gurgled upward.
Youth ducked rubber bullets and what they said was live ammunition being fired at them, and dozens of Red Crescent volunteers waded into the crowd to remove a wounded teenager.
Over an earthen berm, protected from the stun grenades, raging fire and clashes, some kids played on a new swing, the result of some foreign donation to make a small park. They’d been let off school early for the mid-afternoon protests that Fatah had called.
One of the kids couldn’t recall how long it had been since the “shahid
[martyr] Abu Ammar,” Arafat’s nom de guerre, had died.
“We’re sobbing over 16 years since his passing,” he said.
“Do you mean 11 years?” “Right, 11,” he said, evidently too young to have remembered.
Back by the road, as more casualties were being evacuated and a man lumbered through a field with Algerian and Palestinian flags, a sign for a gas station had been spray-painted over with a Star of David in the middle and two swastikas on either side – a fitting symbol of the palpable sense that this “knife intifada” and the daily clashes would continue.