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Ramallah’s Ready for Boom or Bust

Avi Friedman, Ramallah

The big story of 2011 may well be a Palestinian declaration of independence. Would such a state become a ward of the international community and an economic thorn in Israel’s side? Or has the Palestinian Authority created the wherewithal to make it on its own? And what does this all mean for the state of Israel? In this exclusive report, Mishpacha pursues the answers to these questions, and gets an insider’s view of the streets of Ramallah, and a peek at the officials running the show.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The most striking thing about Ramallah today is how normal it all feels. Downtown is teeming with people, many of whom are clearly on their way to work in professional offices, and the city has a lively, cosmopolitan feel to it on a chilly Wednesday morning. Traffic is slow moving into Manara Square, the heart of the city’s main business district, but Palestinian Authority traffic police keep it flowing and orderly.

Although the struggle with Israel is ever-present in conversations with locals, there is little sign of it around town. Unlike during the heyday of the al-Aqsa intifada nearly a decade ago, and in contrast to other Palestinian-controlled cantons around Judea and Samaria today, there is little revolutionary graffiti to be seen — and what there is, most of it is limited to the separation wall as you cross the Kalandia checkpoint that divides the Ramallah district from Jerusalem. Furthermore, although my self-preservation instincts tell me to speak English while here, a local guide says that speaking Hebrew would not cause much of a stir. Apparently many Israelis frequent the city for cheap shopping.

In many ways, Ramallah, which functions as the Palestinian Authority’s seat of government, is booming. The downtown area, which is home to the PA’s own Supreme Court and a branch of the Palestine Stock Exchange, is undergoing a facelift that gives it a feel not unlike downtown Jerusalem. An area around Manara Square is being turned into a pedestrian mall, just as Rechov Yaffo was in Jerusalem. The project is intended to be an upscale shopping destination for Palestinians and foreigners alike.

This is the public face of the new PA as it would like to appear: a responsible, economic state-to-be, a political entity that responds to the needs and desires of the people, and that has the resources and ability to lead the Palestinians into the community of nation-states in the foreseeable future. In very large measure, this new Palestine is thanks to the economic stewardship of Salaam Fayyad, an internationally respected economist who became finance minister in 2002 and prime minister in 2007. Fayyad has won near-universal admiration for reigning in rampant corruption and building reliable banking, finance, and economic infrastructure that could one day serve the needs of an independent Palestinian state. In 2009 he launched a two-year plan for Palestinian independence entitled “Palestine: Ending the Occupation and Establishing the State,” with an eye towards declaring independence sometime in 2011.

On a political level, it seems clear that the plan is moving forward on schedule. A handful of South American countries have already “recognized” a Palestinian state, and sources in Israel’s Foreign Ministry are worried that several European countries, including Spain and Ireland, could follow suit. Furthermore, Palestinian officials have suggested they could seize the opportunity of September’s UN General Assembly in New York to ask the world body for statehood via a process that would closely resemble Israel’s own journey to statehood in 1948.

But there are major question marks surrounding this ambitious program — certainly from the viewpoint of how Israel would react, but also even from the Palestinian point of view. Is Palestinian economic growth really as strong as it seems to be? And even if it is, what is Fayyad’s ultimate goal — an independent state in Judea and Samaria that would live alongside Israel, or is this merely a step on the road to replacing Israel with Palestine? And the million-dollar question: What does Palestinian economic stability mean for Israeli security, over the green line and inside sovereign Israel?


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