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Saturday, August 21, 2010
Ramallah - the flourishing de facto capital of Palestine

'Palestine's new bride'
By KHALED ABU TOAMEH The Jerusalem Post 08/20/2010 17:32
www.jpost.com/Magazine/Features/Article.aspx?id=185283

Fancy restaurants, five-star hotels, glitzy bars.

It's hard to believe that Orjuwan is located in the West Bank. Until a few
years ago, Palestinians could have only dreamed about having an Italian bar
and cuisine like this. But the Orjuwan Lounge in the fashionable
neighborhood of Al-Masyoun in Ramallah has become a symbol of the dramatic
change that has taken place in this city in the past three years.

Fatah gunmen and thugs who once used to roam the streets have been replaced
by policemen and security officers who don't hesitate to use an iron fist
against anyone who breaks the law.

The improved security has encouraged Palestinians and foreigners to inject
money into the city or even move to live there. Luxury apartments are on
sale in most parts of the city. The prices are still very attractive. A
three-room apartment in a new building was sold last week for $160,000.
Three years ago, the same apartment would have been sold for half the price.

"I sell at least three apartments a month," said building contractor and
developer Hussein Mansour. "What's helping us is the fact that local banks
are now prepared to give mortgages to almost everyone. In the past, these
banks refused to give mortgages to Palestinian Authority employees because
there was no guarantee that they would continue to receive salaries."

Tareq Abu Shousheh, a carpenter from Jerusalem, said he bought a new
apartment in the Al-Masyoun neighborhood last month. "I paid only $140,000
for a wonderful apartment," he said. "In Jerusalem I couldn't even find a
smaller apartment that cost less than that. It's impossible to find a small
apartment in an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem for less than $300,000."

Abu Shousheh said many of his friends were now considering following suit
and purchasing new homes in Ramallah or other Palestinian cities such as
Jericho and Bethlehem. The famous Nazareth-based Mahroum Oriental Sweets
recently opened a branch in the city, offering yet more traditional Middle
Eastern pastries, fragrant with honey, pistachio paste, almonds and spices.

Sources in the Ramallah Municipality revealed that more than 100
Palestinians from Jerusalem have relocated their businesses to Ramallah in
the past few months. "Here they pay less taxes and have more customers," the
sources said. "East Jerusalem goes to sleep at sunset and the streets are
completely deserted.

East Jerusalem has become a ghost town, especially when you compare it with
Ramallah."

THE POPULAR Orjuwan restaurant and nightclub attracts a diverse crowd -
young and old, Palestinian and Israeli, Americans and Europeans, as well as
Christians, Muslims and even Jews. Orjuwan was opened less than a year ago
by two brothers and a sister from the famous Sakakini family. The Orjuwan
Lounge is among dozens of fancy restaurants, bars and discotheques that have
cropped up in Ramallah in the past three years, in addition to scores of
construction sites that may be seen in almost every neighborhood of the
city. Another popular site is the Tche Tche Cafe and Restaurant, which has
become a favorite spot among Ramallah's young men and women. Tche Tche has
at least 20 operational branches in the Middle East and is considered one of
the leading chains of cafes and restaurants in the region.

Five-star hotels and gourmet restaurants are popping up like mushrooms. Many
residents are already excited about the new Swiss-run Mövenpick Hotel, which
is expected to open shortly. The new hotel is located about three kilometers
from the city center and has a spectacular view overlooking the suburbs of
Jerusalem. The hotel has 172 rooms and suites, as well as Italian
restaurants, swimming pools and a shopping center.

The five-star hotel, like many businesses, is situated not far from the
Al-Ama'ri refugee camp, home to thousands of disgruntled and unemployed
Palestinians. Some residents of the refugee camp expressed anger over the
Palestinian government's failure to improve their living conditions. "They
are building all these nice and expensive restaurants and bars for the rich
people," said Jamal Abu Kwaik, a local Fatah activist. "The Palestinian
Authority has forgotten about the three refugee camps in the Ramallah area.
You will never see a refugee eating or drinking in these places because we
can't afford to go there."

The general mood in Ramallah these days is reminiscent of the one that
prevailed immediately after the signing of the Oslo Accords and the
establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

Then, Ramallah witnessed an economic boom as many investors from all around
the world converged on the city and its surroundings with high hopes. But
many of the investors ran away after discovering that the Palestinian
government was, in the words of one Palestinian businessman, a "mafia." Back
then, many wealthy Palestinians ran back to the US and the Gulf countries
because, they said, they had fallen victim to corrupt Palestinian government
officials who were demanding kickbacks and commissions.

"You couldn't open a business then without paying a commission to senior
officials associated with [Yasser] Arafat," said a restaurant owner. "Many
businessmen ran away with their money because they could not put up with the
corruption."

The restaurant owner and other businessmen in Ramallah agreed that the
situation today was different. "Today there's less corruption," said Omar
Salman who, together with his brother, is planning to build a new boutique
hotel in a Ramallah suburb. "Also, people today feel safer to invest their
money in Ramallah because of the government's efforts to restore law and
order."

"Ramallah is becoming the de facto capital of Palestine," said Hani Saadeh,
a local engineer.

"The city is the political and economic capital of Palestine."

Sani Meo, publisher of This Week in Palestine, a popular magazine that
covers cultural and economic events in the West Bank, says, "Capital or no
capital, Ramallah has done well and Palestine is proud of its achievements."
Meo noted that while other Palestinian cities strive to compete, Ramallah
has, in fact, "replaced Jaffa and has indeed become the new bride of
Palestine. I only pray that the relative calm that the West Bank is
witnessing is not the lull before another storm hits our area and that the
enduring norm for people will be live and let live."

But many Palestinians are wondering whether the transformation of Ramallah
into a modern and flourishing city is part of an Israeli "conspiracy" to
make them forget about Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. As
the Ramallah publisher pointed out, representative offices that serve as
embassies of many foreign countries already operate in Ramallah, the
financial and political center of the Palestinians.

"The most that Palestinians can aspire to today is that Al-Quds [Jerusalem]
become Bonn and Ramallah Berlin [prior to becoming reunited Germany's
capital again]," said Meo.

The presence of the "embassies" in Ramallah has only reinforced the feeling
that the city has indeed become the internationally recognized capital of
Palestine. Among the countries that have "ambassadors" and "representative
offices" in the city are Argentina, Australia, Austria, Korea, South Africa,
Norway, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, China, Poland, Portugal, The Netherlands,
Russia, Jordan, Brazil, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, India, Japan,
the Czech Republic, Canada and Mexico.

"Whether we like it or not, Ramallah has become the real capital of
Palestine," said Munir Hamdan, a local businessman and Fatah operative. "The
president and prime minister have their offices here. So do the parliament
and all the government ministries."

Hamdan and other Palestinians accused the Palestinian Authority of
"collusion" with Israel in turning Ramallah into the political and financial
capital of the Palestinians. The latest project to build a government
complex in Ramallah has left many residents here wondering whether their
leadership has abandoned the dream to turn Jerusalem into their capital.

"If they are building a new government compound here, that means they have
no plans to be based in Jerusalem," complained Hatem Abdel Kader, a Fatah
legislator from Jerusalem. "Unfortunately, the Palestinian government of
Salam Fayyad has abandoned Jerusalem in favor of Ramallah."

Abdel Kader is perhaps one of the few people who know what they are talking
about when it comes to Jerusalem. About two years ago Fayyad appointed him
as minister for Jerusalem affairs.

However, Abdel Kader resigned a few weeks later, saying he had discovered
that his ministry did not even have enough money to buy a desk and a chair
for him.

"I have to be honest with you and tell you that we have lost the battle for
Jerusalem," Abdel Kader lamented. "One of the reasons is because the
Palestinian government doesn't really care about Jerusalem."

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