recent, Security, World Affairs

Ramallah For Beginners

It’s Saturday evening, and we’ve crossed over to the Palestinian side of the Green Line. I’d always thought that entering the West Bank would be difficult, but it’s not. There are no security officers to ask you questions, no passports to show, no gates to be lifted; just an unobstructed road. Upon leaving Israel, the navigation app Waze displays a red box containing the words “high-risk area” at the top of the screen. (Of course, crossing back the other way is much more difficult.)

As we go deeper into the West Bank, I grow tense, though there aren’t any apparent threats. After twenty minutes, we drive past a settlement where the entrance is guarded by Israeli soldiers peering out of concrete bunkers. One of them is a young woman. The barrel of her rifle rests on a pile of sandbags. She seems be looking through her scope at every passing car. I’m told that these guards don’t discriminate between Israeli and Palestinian license plates, because some attackers have used Israeli cars.

The actual geography of the West Bank, by contrast, invites a sense of freedom and lightness. On the Israeli side, the terrain had been full of military construction: concrete compounds, barbed-wire fences and sniper towers. But here in the West Bank, there’s little sign of industry: The landscape opens up, and the work of the architect and engineer gives way to a harsh beauty. The horizon becomes visible, as do the olive trees, the only obvious greenery covering the yellow hills. From the highway, I can see farmers on donkey-back treading the dirt paths between the groves. Paradoxically, the West Bank feels more biblical than Jerusalem itself.

Over the past two weeks, my Canadian friend Ari and I have been travelling to the West Bank and back by rental car. I’m 26 and unemployed, so I opted for the cheapest vehicle available—a Nissan Micra, which also turns out to be a favorite of Israeli Settlers. Because Ari is Jewish and I’m not visibly Arab, we don’t exactly blend into the local Palestinian traffic. Since we don’t want people to think we’re settlers, we’ve hung Islamic prayer beads from the rear-view mirror, and placed a Keffiyeh, the black-and-white scarf symbolic of Palestinian opposition to Israel, on the dashboard. Our windows are kept half-down so that the Arabic music we’re playing can be heard. While driving through villages, we’re told, it’s best to look bored while driving aggressively. If someone is staring, we make eye contact but do not hold it. You’re also supposed to smoke—constantly—as many Palestinian men do.

Tonight, we’re headed to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority. We’re joined by one of Ari’s friends, Hiba, who’s told us she’d introduce us to some of her Palestinian friends. On the way, we pass through the village of Qalandia, recognizable from the oft-displayed images of the nearby border wall separating the West Bank from Israel. A frequent site of Palestinian protests, it’s covered in black soot from the burning tires rolled into it. The Palestinian side displays two iconic spray-painted portraits. One is Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the First and Second Intifada, who’s been imprisoned in Israel since 2002. He’s depicted holding a phone with two hands to his right ear, eyes directed diagonally upwards, as though about to issue a command. The other, more immediately recognizable portrait, is of Yasser Arafat (1929-2004), the first President of the Palestinian National Authority and Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He’s shown with his Keffiyeh neatly crowning his head, curtaining his neck from behind, and draping down his right shoulder. (Before Arafat turned the Keffiyeh into a national symbol, the scarves were worn by Palestinian farmers to protect their heads from the sun.) Between the two portraits are the words “Free Barghouti,” written in English capital letters.

The Palestinian side of the border wall separating the West Bank from Israel

It’s 9 PM, and the streets of Qalandia are jammed with cars honking and people yelling. In two days, it will be Ramadan. The main road, on which we find ourselves, is lined with clean, brightly lit stores—though the road itself is littered. A concrete barrier separates the lanes, which people hop over as they cross to the other side.

Then comes a sudden bang that overwhelms the other street noises. Having fired guns in the past, I recognize the sound. Then another thunderous bang.

People come out of shops and look in the direction of the shooting. We all hear a rapid succession of shots—the source being close enough that we can smell the gunpowder. The other cars aren’t stopping or pulling over, so we simply do as they do and continue around the bend—where we see hundreds of men dancing, clad in black suits. It’s a wedding.

“Welcome to Palestine,” Hiba tells me.

It’s the same half-joke I’ve heard from every Arab after a slight scare. If it’s not “Palestine,” it’s the name of the Arab village I happen to be in. “Welcome to our side.”

*  *  *

“Ramallah” translates from Arabic to English as “God’s Hill.” It’s nearly a kilometer above sea level and feels colder than Tel Aviv. (Having stereotypically associated Arabs with warm weather, I left my jacket with the Jews by the Mediterranean shore.) After parking our car, the three of us go straight to a bar and dance club called Berlin”—one of the few places in Ramallah where people can drink openly. It’s in a downtown area surrounded by banks and expensive restaurants. While Ramallah’s Arabs are mostly Muslim, Berlin’s customers seem to be mostly Christian. Yet from what I can tell, religion isn’t an issue once you’re inside.

After taking a shot of Arak, an anise-flavoured spirit that tastes like toothpaste, Ari recognizes a man from an Arab village in Israel where they both work. Usually, the fellow strikes a dignified and pious posture, I’m told. But tonight, he’s dancing on a table, apparently drunk, and smoking a cigar. Much as many outwardly religious Israeli Jews treat Tel Aviv as a hedonistic refuge, some Arab-Israelis come to Ramallah for similar purposes. While Tel Aviv might be closer, the West Bank is cheaper and more welcoming. (I’m also guessing the Muslim drinker prefers to turn his back on God alongside other Muslims: Better to spite only his God, and not his God and his people.)

One strange aspect of life in Ramallah is that the conflict with Israel is emphasized in the way the city markets itself to tourists. The hostel where Ari and I stay is called Area D—a play on the Oslo II Accords, which divided the West Bank into three administrative sections, lettered A through C. The hostel’s website boasts that Area D is “beyond the confines of these actors (Israel and Palestine) and provides a fun and safe space for budget travelers to use a base for exploring the West Bank.”

Of course, Area D does not really lie beyond the “confines” of either authority. Ramallah is officially under Palestinian Authority control—but the Israeli Army sometimes enters to carry out arrests. (The night we checked in, two Palestinian men were taken by Israeli forces from the premises of a mosque down the road.)

The following morning, Ari and I awaken to the Muslim call to prayer—and hangovers. Ari has received a text from his boss, Hosni, an Arab-Israeli who owns a well-known restaurant outside of Tel Aviv. Hosni apparently has many connections on both sides, and has generously provided a taxi and driver, who soon shows up outside our hostel. On his itinerary: the tomb of Arafat, and a museum dedicated to the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008). First, however, he wants to bring us to a community square, which turns out to be an ordinary-looking traffic roundabout on the city’s edge.

Then I see why he’s brought us to this place: Surrounded by flowers and elevated a few steps above the sidewalk stands a 20-foot statue of Nelson Mandela. Unveiled in 2016, the statue features a smiling Mandela raising his right hand, clenched into a fist, skyward. Unusually, this statue has been painted. Mandela’s skin is dark brown, and his hair is salt-and-pepper. He’s also dressed in a black suit and white shirt, with a necktie colored in the same red hue as the triangle on the Palestinian flag. We pose for a few selfies with our driver before moving on.

Many of the most renowned symbols that unify Palestinians are connected to political revolutionaries. In addition to Mandela, Arafat and Darwish, Che Guevara is a common figure on T-shirts worn by Palestinian men. The fact Mandela is from Africa and Guevara is from South America isn’t important: Culturally, the Palestinians identify with any sort of political underdog.

Back at the hostel common room, we meet the day’s new visitors—including a group of three British women in their early twenties, who’ve come directly from Ben Gurion airport. Before we can launch into any sort of tourist chit chat, the women tell us solemnly that they’ve come to the West Bank to “get a better understanding of the conflict” and “to see the oppression first-hand.” This is a politically-aware tourist niche that the hostel’s managers market to explicitly. On the lobby walls are signs soliciting visitors who wish to bear witness to suffering. One poster advertises a tour of a nearby refugee camp, Al Am’ari. In fact, this is where the women are headed the next day.

As the day passes, we encounter more visitors. All women, they’ve come from Germany, France, Austria and England. An archetype emerges: visitors touched and troubled by the plight of the Palestinians who’ve traveled here to gain personal insights.

In this latter respect, they’re not too different from me. Their understanding of the Palestinians seems to extend no further than the political identity assigned to them by the global community. Most seem to know a fair bit about the history of the conflict, the number of dead in the most recent conflicts, and the shifting boundaries between Jewish and Arab control. But when it comes to the Palestinian people themselves—how they cook and eat, how they tease and flirt, how they celebrate and mourn—they know even less than I do. Many will no doubt educate themselves during their trip. But it strikes me that, without intending it, most of us have stereotyped the Palestinians as freedom fighter or terrorist—geopolitical character actors within the grand narrative of what is vaguely described as “the Middle East conflict.”

It’s interesting to note the difference between how Arabs behave in Ramallah and Tel Aviv. In Israel, most young Arabs speak Hebrew and few young Jews speak Arabic. The linguistic gap, according to Ari, means that “when Jewish Israelis hear spoken Arabic, which they perceive as screams, they don’t know if a bomb is about to go off or one guy is simply complimenting another guy’s shoes.”  He made this comment in a Ramallah café, where several Arab men nodded in agreement.

A few days later, when we were back in Tel Aviv, Ari and I ran into some of those same British women who we’d met at our Ramallah hostel. Ari, seeking to wind them up a little, asked them how they were enjoying “the party capital of the occupiers.”

“I f–king hate to say it, but I love Tel-Aviv,” said one. It almost sounded as if she were confessing to having betrayed her side.

* * *

Hosni, left. Ari, right.

At Nelson Mandela Square, I ask our driver what significance the statue had for the Palestinian people, expecting he’d give me a political answer. But instead, he surprised me. He told me that on Tuesday nights, Ramallah’s wealthier young men would bring their sports cars and motorcycles, and form a line along the sides of the road leading up the statue. Each driver would take his turn driving around the statue, while others would rev their engines and run burnouts. He was happy to add that many beautiful women, wearing tight jeans and who don’t veil their heads, would come to watch the spectacle.

While I had been hoping for a story about the misery of his situation, he told me what I least expected—what he found fun. The honest admission reminded me to step out of my solemn stereotypes. No matter how deep you look into the conflict, whether you blame the Jews, or blame the Arabs, or blame both, this really is just Man’s oldest game: drawing lines in the sand and calling what’s on your side “mine.”


Michael Humeniuk is a Toronto-based construction worker.

Featured image: Ramallah street scene, photographed by Felix Abraham.


  1. This article, while sounding open and certainly well written, is hugely offensive. Don’t get me wrong. I would love an actual informed article about Ramallah. This isn’t one.

    **"Since we don’t want people to think we’re settlers, we’ve hung Islamic prayer beads from the rear-view mirror, and placed a Keffiyeh, the black-and-white scarf symbolic of Palestinian opposition to Israel, on the dashboard. "

    This is outrageous, and yet the author glosses over it. He is saying he and his Jewish friend pretended to be Muslim - making a mockery of their religion - just so they won’t be killed. I will say it directly–they are afraid of being murdered lest anyone guesses his friend is Jew.

    I myself can’t go to Ramallah. I could indeed ‘pass’ for Palestinian Muslim easily, but imagine going to a place in which I risk getting shot and murdered just because of my race. It may be ok for the author but it surely says something about their ethics. It reminds me of the gov’t urging German Jews to not wear their kippahs in public, or a black French Jewish friend of mine who was beaten up while walking home from synagogue, and the cops told him it was his fault for wearing his prayer shawl, and refusing to investigate. In the same way, they take for granted that it’s totally normal for people to want to murder you if they find out your ethnicity and race. But of course it’s not totally ok–for most races. Just for Jews. Then it’s ok.

    The article is written by someone who knows next to nothing about the region and history except perhaps a vague idea of ‘occupiers’. He has nothing at stake either. There is this alternate-reality narrative that narcissistically views the entire world through the lens of the Western pseudo-marxist narrative of oppressor versus oppressed, and somehow puts Jews - literally the most oppressed peoples in world history - as oppressors, and Palestinians as oppressed because it is a truth universally acknowledged that people can be divided into two rigid groups, one to be sympathized with, and one condemned. Not that Palestinians aren’t oppressed either. It’s complicated, but complexity is not something these oppressor-tourists want to see. Imagine “Native Americans for beginners.” “Pakistan for beginners.” written by a white person who visits Pakistan or a rez for a few days, dangling, say, Native American holy objects in the car, and talks to a few men in bars and restaurants and writes an article about how they’re just like you and me.

    Again, the author is a strong writer, and his portrayal of daily life is well written. I’d welcome an enlightening article about the history and events of Ramallah and the daily life of its citizens.

    But instead we get low key Jew-hatred and a mishmash of uninformed history. Any reference to murders in cold blood is whitewashed out. Just one example among many: He refers to Barghouti as a revered freedom fighter without mentioning Barghouti is a mass murderer/terrorist; among his many victims were a Greek monk, and three people murdered in cold blood while they were enjoying their food at Seafood Market in Tel Aviv.

    Ludicrous assertions are made, eg that Israeli Jews perceive Arabic as screaming and can’t tell the difference between a threat and common conversation (well, if Ari says it, and a couple of guys nod, it must be true!). The author simply quotes random people he meets, then uses that as authority. It’s basically like any other naive, dangerous articles written by a Westerner when visiting a foreign place for a couple of days. This happens also when people want to downplay or ignore maliciousness in a country they want to admire, eg to use an extreme example, people visiting Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany and talking to a couple of people and coming back celebrating their vodka, the guys smoking at the bar, their lovely women. (Oh yes, sexism, what sexism? Why, our Palestinian women are beautiful and wear tight jeans!)

    The author throughout conflates Jews with Israelis. This is how a Jewish child in France can be murdered, or why a synagogue in Michigan I know of has Palestinian protests every Sabbath outside it attacking Jews.

    I think the only reason this essay is published is because Palestinians are treated like primitives who its sufficient to say about them, “Wow! They are human beings like me!” The three British women are especially obnoxious given Britain’s extraordinarily brutal occupation of the land and long history of colonization and Jewish blood on its hands. It takes a lot of chutzpah to now come as colonizer tourists.

    And this is supposed to mean something.This is why he could so easily mock their religion by hanging their religious symbols on his car so he wouldn’t be killed - and a flag that is commonly used to stand for terrorism - because for him, they are simply colorful native tokens. As he himself says, “a game.”

    “No matter how deep you look into the conflict, whether you blame the Jews, or blame the Arabs, or blame both, this really is just Man’s oldest game: drawing lines in the sand and calling what’s on your side “mine.”

    He uses 'Jews" instead of Israelis, but doesn’t say “Muslims” instead of Arabs. This is because he adapts the anti-semitic narrative that “Jews” are a race responsible for Israel and all its political decisions. And no it’s not a child drawing lines in the sand. This is again part of a certain white European sentiment that any conflict that involves ‘primitives’ has to have a primitive and extremely simple theme.

    I am obviously against brutality and injustice and would love an informative, educated article about Ramallah. But this article was so offensive on so many levels I find I’m rambling and ranting. I don’t think I will write about it further.

  2. Just because they were previously oppressed doesn’t mean they’re not oppressors now. That’s a logical fallacy.

    As Zeihan says in his essay, “Goodbye to the Middle East”

    "Even Israel isn’t what it once was. Within the next decade the country’s mostly-Palestinian Muslim population will become the majority, although about 90 percent of them have no political rights in the Israeli system. The two-state process that sought to generate a country for the Palestinians has been dead for years and we have already seen the Israelis implement a very successful separation plan more than a bit reminiscent of South Africa’s Apartheid.

    In fact, Israeli ultranationalists in private conversations even welcome the comparison to Apartheid, because they think Apartheid was gentler than what modern Israel has achieved. Under Apartheid, the black South Africans could travel to white-controlled zones for work. Under the Israeli program the Palestinians languish behind 35-foot-tall concrete walls in what are little more than open air prisons with the Israelis controlling Palestinian access to power, food and water. As the thinking goes, who cares if this radicalizes the Palestinians if they are radicalized on the other side of a wall. Arguably, places like Tunisia or Pakistan are now “more equal” democracies than Israel. (Ugh, I’m going to get so much hate mail for these last two paragraphs.)"

  3. @Dcl

    Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. I agree with much of it.

    Pardon me for presuming, but it seems that you know Israel and the West Bank and I have never been there. Neither do I speak or read Arabic or Hebrew.

    However, one thing I’ve picked up from the few Israeli TV shows I’ve seen (with subtitles) is the sense that Palestinians often (always?) refer to Israelis generally as “Yehudi” (Arabic for “Jew”, according to the Internet) rather than “Israelis”.

    Is this true in your experience? And if so, what significance would you attach to it?

  4. Don’t worry, you won’t get any hate mail from me; you’re not that important. But I’ll respond as others may read the post.

    No, it’s not logical fallacy–you are making an assertion that is false. You’re entitled to your opinion but not your private fantasy masquerading as truth. I am talking statistics and fact, not pretend. As far as your bizarre assertion that Israeli ‘ultranationalists’ - whatever that means? how is that different from ‘nationalists’? - that they love being compared to apartheid, that doesn’t even deserve a response. It’s a facile lie.

    As far as anti-Jew racism though–If you don’t see there is a rising global hatred and violence against Jews, you are willfully blind at the very least. Jews are 0.2% of the world population. 0.2%. Yet we are vastly disproportionate in racist attacks against us.

    In Europe, Jews are fleeing in record numbers. (In many countries in the Middle East - not all; Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iran - they can’t flee, as 850,000 were driven from their homes and home countries, where many lived for generations, from the 1940s to 1970s (or killed) so the lands are Judenrein).

    Here is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of facts (I’m not spending much time on this because it’s not worth arguing with someone who either a) is ignorant and refuses to educate him/herself about racism, and/or b) hates jews—

    “The U.S. Jewish community experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018, including a doubling of anti-Semitic assaults and the single deadliest attack against the Jewish community in American history…” (ADL, 4/30/19)

    “Hate crimes against Jews in America rose by more than a third last year and accounted for 58 percent of all religion-based hate crimes, according to data released Tuesday by the FBI.” (Note that Jews in America account for 2% of the population)

    “Sep 21, 2019, NPR - Anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City are up 63% compared to 2018”

    AP, 5/1/19–"Israeli researchers reported Wednesday that violent attacks against Jews spiked significantly last year, with the largest reported number of Jews killed in anti-Semitic acts in decades, leading to an “increasing sense of emergency” among Jewish communities worldwide.

    Capped by [the deadly shooting] that killed 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, assaults targeting Jews rose 13 percent in 2018, according to Tel Aviv University researchers. They recorded nearly 400 cases worldwide, with more than a quarter of the major violent cases taking place in the United States.

    But the spike was most dramatic in western Europe, where Jews have faced even greater danger and threats. In Germany, for instance, there was a 70 percent increase in anti-Semitic violence.

    From Washington Post—5/1/19–According to the report, 2018 saw a 13 percent increase in “major violent” anti-Semitic incidents — 387, compared to 342 in 2017.

    The result, the report concludes, is that Jewish people begin to doubt their association with places they have lived for decades. “This sense of turning gradually [into] an outsider is coupled with an ominous feeling of insecurity that reached its peak in October, after the murder of 11 elderly Jews in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life…

    There are many more links to those interested. Here is a decent link to global attacks:

    I’ll end with personal experiences. When I was young I believed that the Holocaust ended the millennia of anti-Jewish genocide, hatred, and persecution. This even though more than half my extended family was murdered in the Holocaust, and the ripple effects are still felt. And that’s not including the murders over generations. But after a hiatus of a couple of decades, I find Jew hatred to be just as strong as ever, and rising rapidly. I knew people in the Tree of Life Synagogue. Oh nevermind–I was going to list all the Jew hatred I’ve experienced and my kids have, but I’m sort of exhausted by all this.

  5. @MorganFoster, thanks for your kind response.
    I am by no means an expert, but yes, in general Palestinians refer to Yehudi (“Jews,” used usually as an insult). Jews themselves in Israel don’t. This is what I was saying–conflating Israelis with Jews is part of what feeds into the anti-semitism.

  6. Heike: "Even Israel isn’t what it once was. Within the next decade the country’s mostly-Palestinian Muslim population will become the majority”

    Sounds like a surge of volunteers to be oppressed by Apartheid state.

    Heike: "Arguably, places like Tunisia or Pakistan are now ‘more equal’ democracies than Israel.”

    Tunisia has 99.8% Muslim population, Pakistan– 96.5%.

    For non-believers it is quite a challenge to live in any society with Muslim population hovering around 45% danger level. Indonesia turned from predominantly Buddhist society in early 1900s to largest Muslim Nation in the World, in just a few decades. Followed by Pakistan’s 42% Hindu population reduced to less than 1% in half a century. Similar trends in Bangladesh, Lebanon, Maldives.

    Some of the Sharia’s provisions:

    • Criticizing or denying any part of the Quran is punishable by death.
    • Criticizing or denying Muhammad is a prophet is punishable by death.
    • Criticizing or denying Allah, the moon god of Islam is punishable by death.
    • A Muslim who becomes a non-Muslim is punishable by death.
    • A non-Muslim who leads a Muslim away from Islam is punishable by death.

  7. This text has been copy/pasted from The Economist

    But does ‘Tropicana312’ know what they/you are talking about? Why not cite some official statistics?

    Wow! I learn new things on Quillette every day, but not necessarily true things:

  8. Hi Jack,

    Ha ha ha. Glad you remember Tropicana312. Good old days of The Economist…

    Make your own research. One of the links:

    Guess what – I copy-pasted Sharia’s provisions as well. Do you want to know where from? You have only to ask.

  9. The joke’s on you. A Google search suggests you copy/pasted that text from:

    That ‘moon god’ thing is the ‘tell’ that you’ve been spending way too much time on conservative Christian web sites.

  10. This obsession of yours to disparage Serenity or their possible religious affiliation, rather than address their points, is more than a little disturbing, @JackBNimble

  11. I’m grateful for your diligence in pointing out what’s wrong with this article and some of the other comments here. I ran out of patience for trash like this a long time ago.

  12. Thank you, HalifaxCB.

    JackBNimble did not ‘hurt my feelings’. I am very pleased he posted Tropicana312’s comment in full. I kept only part of it.

    Reading The Economist’s comments section four years ago was an eye-opening experience for me. I knew very little about Israel, Islamism, Sharia, etc. I could not imagine how thick was the web of lies covering the state of Israel. When Angela Merkel declared the open-border policy there was a massive push-back. You can see that 70 subscribers recommended Tropicana312’s post.

    I wish I had eloquence and more time to come up with better informed and convincing comments. It is not about “Man’s oldest game: drawing lines in the sand and calling what’s on your side “mine.” It is not about ends but means men use playing this game. If in any doubt - just follow Ten Commandments relevant to the case. People who genuinely seek lasting peace and mutual understanding don’t incite, support or engage in terrorism, Pallywood productions, lying, misrepresentation of information and the rest of it.

  13. To even suggest that Pakistan is a more equal democracy is totally ridiculous. Look up the Asia Bibi case and the persecution of Pakistani Christians generally. (Or look at any aspect of their democracy and civil society). You might also note that within the West Bank, the Arab Christians who were once the majority in places like Bethlehem have gone, effectively ethnically cleansed in what would be Palestine. Incidentally the Arab Christian population has prospered in Israel proper. Also what kind of “open prison” has nightclubs and young men with expensive cars?

  14. The title of this piece is “Ramallah for beginners”, not “Ramallah for academics” or “Ramallah for the local ones”. I’m a beginner in this regard and I find this piece well-written, open-minded and informative enough (not in a political sense), certainly not offensive, either for arabs or jews. By your reaction, you seem to me like a hysterical gender-woked whom is offered some basic sex education courses. My guess is that it was not intended for a reader like you.

  15. I think that your impression of this piece helps to strengthen @Dcl’s point. You read it and saw a nice description of Palestinian society, not realizing how it glossed over some of Palestinian society’s murderous aspects.

    For example, not wanting to look like “settlers” (Jews) to avoid being murdered in cold blood. Or the fact that “Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the First and Second Intifada, who’s been imprisoned in Israel since 2002” is doing time for his part in the murder of innocents.

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