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Palestine's secret oasis

Surrounded by conflict, the West Bank city of Ramallah is undergoing a quiet renaissance

As the sun rises between the hills and disperses low-hanging mist, Ramallah wakes up to a normal, urban life. Vegetable shops roll out their shining, fleshy wares. The exhausts of the city's orange taxis shake off the chill of night. And although, unlike most other cities, Ramallah has been many decades under occupation, this, for its inhabitants, is just another day.

Despite its violent and difficult past and its uncertain present, Ramallah has an air of normality that is striking. So, too, does the stark, arid land that falls away from its hilltop perch, rising again to where its urban twin, al-Bireh, meets the university town of Birzeit. It is hard to imagine Israeli tanks growling along these vibrant streets, as they did during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Or pitched battles being fought near the lush municipal park, complete with faded playground equipment.

The comparative calm of recent years has allowed this city of some 30,000 people, at the heart of a much larger governorate of 280,000, to experience something of a quiet renaissance. While the World Bank this year put unemployment across the West Bank at 19 per cent, Ramallah, as the seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has become a centre of relative affluence.

"You can't feel the conflict here so much," said a friend who works for a local Palestinian NGO. "In Bethlehem, the wall cuts right through the town. In Hebron, there are the settlers [many with a reputation for attacking both the Israeli security forces and Palestinian civilians]. In Nablus, the tension is palpable."

In this less pressured environment, fortified by inflows of aid, a little private-sector investment and a large international presence, Ramallah is advancing its revival, the city steadily supplanting East Jerusalem - now cordoned off by the "security barrier" and inaccessible to most Palestinians - as the economic and cultural centre of Palestinian life in the West Bank.

On Thursday afternoons, when the working day and week come to an end, the city's commercial centre seems to resonate with a spirit of carnival. Young men - often arrived from nearby villages to seek odd jobs - swagger through the streets radiating from the vigilant stone lions of al-Manara Square. Fashionably dressed young women, many with their heads uncovered, gossip animatedly in twos and threes. Families swarm between the shops: the jewellers abounding with gold, the pharmacies, the shops peddling household electronics, mobile phones, football boots, hijabs and sunglasses, the physiotherapists, the cafes serving Ramallah's distinctive chewy ice cream, and the fishmonger Mr Fish, implausible in this dry, encircled land.

On the city's outskirts, new blocks of flats and houses have appeared, some mimicking the villas dotted through the old town that were once rented by vacationers from the Gulf, come to cool off in the mountain breeze. At night, wealthy Palestinians and expatriates sip on imported wine and Taybeh beer - from the West Bank's very own microbrewery - in stylish bars and eateries.

Ramallah's cultural life is also flourishing, carefully chronicled in This Week In Palestine, the Time Out of the occupied Palestinian territories. Public endeavours through renowned artistic projects such as al-Kamandjâti (meaning "the violinist" in Arabic) form its backbone. Nestled behind the walls of the old city, this startling centre - in a renovated house dating from the Ottoman period, complete with open-air performance space - aims to bring music to impoverished Palestinian children. Most come from refugee camps close by, as did its founder Ramzi Aburedwan, who now plays in Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Other established venues such as the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre and al-Kasaba Theatre play host to drama, films and fine art, while concerts and other events are held regularly in Ramallah's crowded bars. Rap and hip-hop are hugely popular among the young Palestinians taking advantage of the creative space opening up in the city, and such acts dominated the late slots at the recent Taybeh Oktoberfest.

Inevitably, much artistic expression focuses on the political situation. Akram Malki, a playwright and theatre director who trained in Baghdad, but works as a travel agent by day, told me that even though he tries, it is hard to write about anything else. "It not only stretches your nerves, it also stretches your soul," he said, framed by posters for improbable holiday destinations. "Theatre groups in different parts of the West Bank can no longer travel to rehearse together. And I haven't been able to go to Jerusalem for ten years."

For, despite the lively nightlife of this beautiful city, "the Bride of Palestine", few people walk the streets after midnight, as the favoured hour for occasional incursions by the Israeli army approaches. The young soldiers guarding al-Muqata'a, the restored presidential compound and site of Yasser Arafat's imposing mausoleum, may joke and flirt in their boredom, but the oversized portrait of the late leader - marking the spot where he crouched as Israeli troops shelled the compound in 2002 - is a sharp reminder that this city was once under siege.

Ramallah at the moment does not bear physical scars of that conflict, nor does it choke under a tightening blockade like Gaza. However, its streets are not yet free from incursions and riots, and the imminent end of the PA president Mahmoud Abbas's term next month carries further risk of a severe intra-Palestinian struggle.

But, in the meantime, life goes on. On weekday mornings, the metal grates will be pulled back at the DVD Box and by the tailors at Moda Fashion, the bakers will pile high the sweet ka'ak prepared in the early hours, and the green-and-white number 18 buses will commence their stuttering journeys into congested East Jerusalem.

I leave Ramallah on a bus doing the school run. My appearance and passport somewhat cushion me from the weary aggression of the Israeli soldiers at the Qalandiya checkpoint. But not from the gloomy watchtowers and concrete slabs, adorned with graffiti by the English urban artist Banksy and marked in one place, in wide letters: CTRL+ALT+DELETE. My travel companions, two young girls with neat ponytails who peek back at me around the seat, are less perturbed. They put their IDs back in their Bratz backpacks and pull out their exercise books to do some last-minute revision. It is, after all, just another day.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide