‘Palestine’s new bride’

Fancy restaurants, five-star hotels and new construction sites. Welcome to the new Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestine.

Ramallah lights 311 (photo credit: Muhammed Muheisen/AP)
Ramallah lights 311
(photo credit: Muhammed Muheisen/AP)
It’s hard to believe that Orjuwan is located in the West Bank. Until a few years ago, Palestinians could have only dreamed about having an Italian bar and cuisine like this. But the Orjuwan Lounge in the fashionable neighborhood of Al-Masyoun in Ramallah has become a symbol of the dramatic change that has taken place in this city in the past three years.
Fatah gunmen and thugs who once used to roam the streets have been replaced by policemen and security officers who don’t hesitate to use an iron fist against anyone who breaks the law.
The improved security has encouraged Palestinians and foreigners to inject money into the city or even move to live there. Luxury apartments are on sale in most parts of the city. The prices are still very attractive. A three-room apartment in a new building was sold last week for $160,000. Three years ago, the same apartment would have been sold for half the price.
“I sell at least three apartments a month,” said building contractor and developer Hussein Mansour. “What’s helping us is the fact that local banks are now prepared to give mortgages to almost everyone. In the past, these banks refused to give mortgages to Palestinian Authority employees because there was no guarantee that they would continue to receive salaries.”
Tareq Abu Shousheh, a carpenter from Jerusalem, said he bought a new apartment in the Al-Masyoun neighborhood last month. “I paid only $140,000 for a wonderful apartment,” he said. “In Jerusalem I couldn’t even find a smaller apartment that cost less than that. It’s impossible to find a small apartment in an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem for less than $300,000.”
Abu Shousheh said many of his friends were now considering following suit and purchasing new homes in Ramallah or other Palestinian cities such as Jericho and Bethlehem. The famous Nazareth-based Mahroum Oriental Sweets recently opened a branch in the city, offering yet more traditional Middle Eastern pastries, fragrant with honey, pistachio paste, almonds and spices.
Sources in the Ramallah Municipality revealed that more than 100 Palestinians from Jerusalem have relocated their businesses to Ramallah in the past few months. “Here they pay less taxes and have more customers,” the sources said. “East Jerusalem goes to sleep at sunset and the streets are completely deserted.
East Jerusalem has become a ghost town, especially when you compare it with Ramallah.”
THE POPULAR Orjuwan restaurant and nightclub attracts a diverse crowd – young and old, Palestinian and Israeli, Americans and Europeans, as well as Christians, Muslims and even Jews. Orjuwan was opened less than a year ago by two brothers and a sister from the famous Sakakini family. The Orjuwan Lounge is among dozens of fancy restaurants, bars and discotheques that have cropped up in Ramallah in the past three years, in addition to scores of construction sites that may be seen in almost every neighborhood of the city. Another popular site is the Tche Tche Cafe and Restaurant, which has become a favorite spot among Ramallah’s young men and women. Tche Tche has at least 20 operational branches in the Middle East and is considered one of the leading chains of cafes and restaurants in the region.
Five-star hotels and gourmet restaurants are popping up like mushrooms. Many residents are already excited about the new Swiss-run Mövenpick Hotel, which is expected to open shortly. The new hotel is located about three kilometers from the city center and has a spectacular view overlooking the suburbs of Jerusalem. The hotel has 172 rooms and suites, as well as Italian restaurants, swimming pools and a shopping center.
The five-star hotel, like many businesses, is situated not far from the Al-Ama’ri refugee camp, home to thousands of disgruntled and unemployed Palestinians. Some residents of the refugee camp expressed anger over the Palestinian government’s failure to improve their living conditions. “They are building all these nice and expensive restaurants and bars for the rich people,” said Jamal Abu Kwaik, a local Fatah activist. “The Palestinian Authority has forgotten about the three refugee camps in the Ramallah area. You will never see a refugee eating or drinking in these places because we can’t afford to go there.”
The general mood in Ramallah these days is reminiscent of the one that prevailed immediately after the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.
Then, Ramallah witnessed an economic boom as many investors from all around the world converged on the city and its surroundings with high hopes. But many of the investors ran away after discovering that the Palestinian government was, in the words of one Palestinian businessman, a “mafia.” Back then, many wealthy Palestinians ran back to the US and the Gulf countries because, they said, they had fallen victim to corrupt Palestinian government officials who were demanding kickbacks and commissions.
“You couldn’t open a business then without paying a commission to senior officials associated with [Yasser] Arafat,” said a restaurant owner. “Many businessmen ran away with their money because they could not put up with the corruption.”
The restaurant owner and other businessmen in Ramallah agreed that the situation today was different. “Today there’s less corruption,” said Omar Salman who, together with his brother, is planning to build a new boutique hotel in a Ramallah suburb. “Also, people today feel safer to invest their money in Ramallah because of the government’s efforts to restore law and order.”
“Ramallah is becoming the de facto capital of Palestine,” said Hani Saadeh, a local engineer.
“The city is the political and economic capital of Palestine.”
Sani Meo, publisher of This Week in Palestine, a popular magazine that covers cultural and economic events in the West Bank, says, “Capital or no capital, Ramallah has done well and Palestine is proud of its achievements.” Meo noted that while other Palestinian cities strive to compete, Ramallah has, in fact, “replaced Jaffa and has indeed become the new bride of Palestine. I only pray that the relative calm that the West Bank is witnessing is not the lull before another storm hits our area and that the enduring norm for people will be live and let live.”
But many Palestinians are wondering whether the transformation of Ramallah into a modern and flourishing city is part of an Israeli “conspiracy” to make them forget about Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. As the Ramallah publisher pointed out, representative offices that serve as embassies of many foreign countries already operate in Ramallah, the financial and political center of the Palestinians.
“The most that Palestinians can aspire to today is that Al-Quds [Jerusalem] become Bonn and Ramallah Berlin [prior to becoming reunited Germany’s capital again],” said Meo.
The presence of the “embassies” in Ramallah has only reinforced the feeling that the city has indeed become the internationally recognized capital of Palestine. Among the countries that have “ambassadors” and “representative offices” in the city are Argentina, Australia, Austria, Korea, South Africa, Norway, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, China, Poland, Portugal, The Netherlands, Russia, Jordan, Brazil, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, India, Japan, the Czech Republic, Canada and Mexico.
“Whether we like it or not, Ramallah has become the real capital of Palestine,” said Munir Hamdan, a local businessman and Fatah operative. “The president and prime minister have their offices here. So do the parliament and all the government ministries.”
Hamdan and other Palestinians accused the Palestinian Authority of “collusion” with Israel in turning Ramallah into the political and financial capital of the Palestinians. The latest project to build a government complex in Ramallah has left many residents here wondering whether their leadership has abandoned the dream to turn Jerusalem into their capital.
“If they are building a new government compound here, that means they have no plans to be based in Jerusalem,” complained Hatem Abdel Kader, a Fatah legislator from Jerusalem. “Unfortunately, the Palestinian government of Salam Fayyad has abandoned Jerusalem in favor of Ramallah.”
Abdel Kader is perhaps one of the few people who know what they are talking about when it comes to Jerusalem. About two years ago Fayyad appointed him as minister for Jerusalem affairs.
However, Abdel Kader resigned a few weeks later, saying he had discovered that his ministry did not even have enough money to buy a desk and a chair for him.
“I have to be honest with you and tell you that we have lost the battle for Jerusalem,” Abdel Kader lamented. “One of the reasons is because the Palestinian government doesn’t really care about Jerusalem.”