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Letter From Palestine


These prison walls
Stephanie Nolen meditates on a year of promise and pain for Palestinians.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN A year ago I stood outside Ramallah Prison, part of a jubilant crowd. The Israeli Army had just pulled its troops out of the city after more than 28 years of military occupation, and jeeploads of grinning young Palestinian police had poured in.

I was swept along with the crowd into the prison. It was the elderly women who rushed forward and tore down the walls, wrenching open the gates where day after day they had come to plead for word of sons and husbands arrested in the night. Inside, fathers were taking their children on a macabre trip down memory lane, to see the cells where they had lived for years. I watched, stunned at this testimony to human resilience, as the men wandered between cells now thrown open, reminding one another of a particularly kind Israeli soldier or an especially nasty form of torture. Misunderstanding my confusion, one young man stepped forward obligingly to show me how the manacles held you just above the floor.

Everyone knew, that night, that the Israelis had only withdrawn to the edges of Ramallah and four other West Bank cities and that, if we looked hard, their guns were still visible in the surrounding hills. But just then, none of it mattered – the enemy had driven away and the long-illegal Palestinian flag flew above the hated prison. Three weeks later, the first Palestinian elections were held in the West Bank and Gaza. Yasser Arafat the outlaw revolutionary became President Arafat and a legislature was elected. From a people who expect no better than to endure, there was cautious hope.     

But the fruit, shiny and ripe in the bowl, has proved bitter to taste.

It started in February, while the euphoria of redeployment and elections was still vaguely tangible. Seeking to derail the peace process and swing the results of the Israeli national election, two groups of Palestinian Islamic militants carried out four suicide bombings inside Israel, killing a total of 59 Israelis. Immediately, Israel slapped a total closure on the Palestinian territories, separating all the West Bank towns and villages from each other, locking the population into Gaza, and keeping everyone out of Jerusalem.

With the movement of both goods and people frozen, the Palestinian economy reeled and started a steady decline that continues today. The closure – which has at times been eased but never lifted – costs the Palestinian economy six million dollars a day. Unemployment is now 60 per cent in Gaza and about 30 per cent in the West Bank. In November, the top UN body here found that the average income in the territories had declined by 23 per cent in the peace-process era, and that the average worker can now cover only 59 per cent of household needs with his or her wages. The UN placed the blame for the drop in living standards squarely on Israel's closure policy.

The Hamas bombing campaign had the predicted consequences: the right-wing Likud party won the Israeli elections, and defiant hard-liner Binyamin Netanyahu was installed as Prime Minister. In the days after the elections, there was bravado on the streets of Ramallah. In coffee shops, the men told me: 'They are two sides of the same coin, Netanyahu or Shimon Peres.' Any Israeli government had the same agenda for expansion onto Palestinian land, they said; recalling Menachem Begin and Egypt, Palestinians speculated that a strong Likud government might be brave enough to make a real peace.

Then reality set in. Netanyahu wasted no time in keeping an election promise to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank. By the end of the summer, his government had budgeted $300 million for new settlements, which are illegal under the peace agreement. Thousands of empty settlement houses, which the last Labour government 'froze', were put up for sale, with the usual government perks package – and settlers, elated with the new policies, began fencing off Arab-owned land around existing settlements, confident the Government would not stop them. Meanwhile, construction continued on an elaborate series of bypass roads for settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. The 'security' roads are intended to whisk settlers around the autonomous Palestinian areas like Ramallah. In reality, say Palestinian critics, they have served to carve the West Bank into a series of isolated, autonomous cantons, effectively destroying any dream of a sovereign entity – and in the process they have swallowed more than 800 hectares of Palestinian land.

Back at the Ramallah Prison, the cells were filling up again. But this time it was Palestinian police doing the jailing. The first wave of arrests came in the spring: Yasser Arafat, under intense pressure from Israel and the US, and desperate to prove he could control his people, ordered a massive crackdown on the Islamic opposition. At least 2,000 Hamas and Islamic Jihad members were arrested.

As the months went by and they stayed in jail, never charged, never tried, and several detainees died mysterious deaths under interrogation, resentment began to grow. Tales of corruption were whispered about the Palestinian Authority – of bribery, police extortion, and economic monopolies held by government ministers.

Arafat pleaded for time and patience but looking at the band of cronies and lifetime soldiers he brought with him from Lebanon and Tunis to be his 'Government', the emergent police state seemed inevitable. Palestinians, who struggled so hard in the Intifada to win their rights, expected better than this. 'I'd rather spend a thousand years in an Israeli jail than one night treated like this by my own people,' detainee Mahmoud Jummayil told his little brother in a prison cell they shared in August. The next day, Mahmoud was beaten to death by police on the orders of a top Arafat aide.

In September, as dissatisfaction reached a fever pitch, there was an explosion – not against Arafat, as I had begun to expect, but against Israel. Protests over a new Israeli tunnel in Arab Jerusalem erupted into riots, and when Israeli soldiers fired at demonstrators, for the first time Palestinian police used their new weapons to shoot back. In three days of bloody clashes at the edges of Ramallah and the other self-rule cities, 14 Israeli soldiers and 88 Palestinians were killed. Then, as quickly as it began, that violence dissipated; and only the broken glass and bullet cases that littered the streets served to remind me it had happened at all.

This year of promise, of pay-off for decades of endurance, has brought nothing but more pain and disappointment. Standing at the gates of Ramallah Prison one year after the celebrations the night the Israeli army drove away, I fear what I will see here next December.

Canadian Stephanie Nolen has lived in Ramallah since 1994. She covers the West Bank and Gaza for Newsweek and Toronto’s Globe and Mail.

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New Internationalist issue 287 magazine cover This article is from the January 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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