'About 40,000 people from Ramallah live in the US'

First female mayor fights for women's rights and a free press.

ramallah mayor (photo credit: Shabtai Gold)
ramallah mayor
(photo credit: Shabtai Gold)
"It was harder than I thought," says Janet Mikhael, Ramallah's first female mayor, upon completion of her first year in office. "This has not been a normal year. We have been under an international boycott. Together with the occupation, this did not help." Mikhael says civil employees are not receiving regular salaries and the economy in general is faltering because of the international sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. She cannot collect taxes, she notes, from people who aren't earning money. "We are a municipality, we don't really do politics. We give services, but right now there is not a lot of money, so we don't have any big projects," says Mikhael, sitting in her office in the Ramallah Municipality building. "We focus on basic environmental services, like sewage and garbage management and water." She is dismayed that donations dried up after Hamas won the elections last year, and she is not a supporter of the Palestinians being a people dependent on handouts. "I would prefer that people have money and pay their taxes, so we wouldn't require the help of donors." Mikhael is from an old Ramallah family, one of the original families. "We have about 40,000 people from Ramallah living in the United States, and only 2,000 people from the original families still live here." Ramallah currently has a population of about 60,000. The city is always growing, though, because of internal immigration. "In 1948, refugees came here from Ramle and Lod and other places in occupied Palestine. In 1967, after the occupation, many people left, but many villagers migrated to the city. During the last intifada people came from all over Palestine to live in Ramallah." There are, however, some advantages to all the migration. "Ramallah is a liberal city, because it is open. Different kinds of people come here, move here," she says. Although she questions how long the internal Palestinian cease-fire will last, she says that "Ramallah will be better than other places" because of its openness. The immigration has turned this once Christian town into a mixed city whose skyline boasts both crosses and minarets with crescents. She says that historically the local Christians and Muslims have gotten along well. And she may be the proof of the local solidarity. When she ran for the city council, her independent list did not win a majority and she required the votes of the Hamas council members to be mayor. She took the job because "I love my city and I want to improve it." Mikhael's background is in education. She was the headmistress of the Ramallah Secondary School for girls and takes proud in her former pupils. "Eighty percent of the girls went on to university. They are now architects, engineers, doctors and many lawyers." Over the years, girls' prospects in the city have improved. "I can see many women finishing their university studies, even after they get married," Mikhael notes. But she wants more change. "We have old laws in our country, and it is not easy to change laws quickly." She places her hopes in her former students. Officially she is an independent, but her politics are clearly liberal and nationalist with a strong leaning to the left. She cares deeply about women's rights and freedom of expression. The latter, she says, "is very important, because the media is a tool to tell the truth." She is troubled about Gaza - "that big prison" - and is not surprised TV crews have been attacked there. "This comes from their frustration and bad situation," adding that Palestinians support a free media. But she wants more Palestinian media in English. "Arabic is for Arabs, and we know our problems. We need to be more open to the world," she says. Her municipality is currently building an English Web site. "I am glad about Al-Jazeera in English and The Palestine Times," a new Palestinian daily. Although she hasn't formed an opinion about the brand new RAM FM station, which is supported by a wealthy South African Jew, she support the general idea of Palestinians reaching out to the world in a language that non-Arabs understand. Her own message is very clear: "The occupation is our problem. The international community should support the Palestinians, because we have the right to live like everyone else. They should recognize the [new national unity] government." The boycott, she says, is "punishing the people and this is not right." She also worries about the frequent military incursions into her city. A recent one, in January, took place in the late afternoon, close to her office, and left four dead. Roads and other public places were destroyed, and it's her job to repair damages. "It is very hard on the residents," she says. "But we get used to it. We are a strong people."