A Yasser Arafat lookalike rolls his eyes in a faintly alarming way, drawing laughter from his growing crowd of onlookers as a drumbeat of Arabic music holds the crowd in its grip.
The act is part of a festive atmosphere in Ramallah, where thousands of Palestinians gathered this week to fête Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's formal launch of the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations in New York today.
“Finally the world will learn there is a place called Palestine,” grins Rasha Hussein, a student in a YouTube t-shirt, attending a march against her parents’ wishes. “We’ve been silent for a long time. We have to make a move to get somewhere.”
It is a sentiment echoed by others in this city, which has seen a measure of prosperity in recent years, as evidenced by the growing number of small businesses, a modest boom in hotels, and a steady stream of visitors. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s two-year statebuilding initiative leading up to the UN bid has arguably borne most fruit here.
In Gaza, meanwhile, residents have been cut off from the PA's reforms amid a four-year split between the PA and Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza. But while Hamas came out this week in opposition to the UN statehood bid, many Gazans – living under an economic blockade by Israel and still recovering from a 2009 war with the Jewish state – feel there is little to risk.
“In these circumstances of difficult daily life under daily Israeli occupation, what do we have to lose?” asks Salem Ajrami, who has been unemployed since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. “What should prevent us from getting a normal life in a normal state?”
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Indeed, while Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have led considerably different lives over the past four years, Mahmoud Abbas’s unexpected decision to approach the UN after two decades of negotiations with Israel has inspired hope in both territories that the stagnant situation could be changed.
“So many times we hear ‘no, no, no.’ Perhaps this time we’ll hear a small ‘yes’,” says Ahmad Samhan, a shopkeeper in Ramallah. “The only hope we have is the UN. We have lost hope in the US and the Europeans. Maybe the UN can bring something positive.”
Apathy, disillusionment elsewhere in West Bank
But if there is an atmosphere of optimism in Ramallah, the feeling is very different an hour’s drive south to Hebron. Shuhada Street, once the heartbeat of the city’s bustling marketplace, is deserted, the Palestinian shops long ago shuttered up, Stars of David splashed across their doors.
Here a Jewish community, one of the most hard-line in the occupied West Bank, lives in the heart of the largely Palestinian city, a constant source of friction that demands a continuous army presence for the protection of the Jewish settlers. It is a city divided, the Jewish quarter (where many Palestinians still live) under Israeli control, and the rest controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
Many Palestinians here support Hamas and have little patience for Mr. Abbas’ statehood bid, which few here believe will amount to much anyway.
“There will never be peace, there will never be freedom here,” laments Idris, a leathery man who has witnessed the entrenchment of Israeli occupation and settlements over 20 years of peace negotiations. Just yards away, an Israeli soldier shades himself from the afternoon sun, his rifle slung across his chest.
In the narrow streets of Jenin’s refugee camp in the northern West Bank, memories of Israel’s military incursion during the second intifada nearly a decade ago are still raw. Many Palestinian homes were flattened and dozens killed in a 10-day assault dubbed the Battle of Jenin when Israeli forces raided the camp, attempting to rout militants operating out of the warren-like streets.
Ex-fighters released from Israeli prisons roam the streets in search of scarce jobs, and a faltering economy combined with the PA’s inability to pay full salaries to its employees is feeding into a despair that is little served by what many see as fruitless diplomatic maneuvers.
“People here don’t care [about the UN],” says Adnan Nghnghia, the local director of the Freedom Theatre, a landmark project offering an outlet to the camp’s inhabitants. “They believe weak leaders will never bring anything to their people. I’m proud of Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Salam Fayyad but they have nothing in their hand.”
'A very brave move'
Unemployment is high in Gaza as well, as is a rising feeling of frustration at the lack of opportunity the blockade has led to.
On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Ajrami sat with family members and neighbors in plastic chairs outside a dilapidated building in the Jabaliya refugee camp, debating the UN bid as children rode tricycles nearby and coffee brewed over a wood fire. Smoke drifted across the group as the conversation turned to how many Hamas supporters also approve of the statehood bid by Hamas’s rival.
Even some leftists like Hikmat Massri are behind the move. The young man hasn’t been a fan of Abbas in the past, he says, yet now he speaks of the leader in appreciative tones. “This is a very brave move,” he says. “I trust that he has discussed everything and knows exactly where he’s going.”
Mr. Massri says he will celebrate on the street Friday when Abbas presents his request to the UN, despite a Hamas warning that such public shows of support will not be tolerated. Yet others are more circumspect about the bid.
Mr. Nader is afraid the US and the UN will stop funding after a unilateral Palestinian move, leading to a crisis in a place where as much as 80 percent of the population depends on aid. Others oppose the bid because they say it would forfeit the right of return for refugees who lost their land in the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war, or because they support a one-state solution. And still others say they simply don’t believe the action at the UN will make a difference on the ground in Gaza.
“At the end the whole resolution will remain words on paper. Nothing will be implemented on the ground,” says Mona Heales, a human rights worker. “If Abu Mazen actually achieves anything, it will be implemented in the West Bank, not in Gaza.”
Rumblings of a third intifada
Many wonder what will happen if the UN bid fails – the US has vowed to block it on the UN Security Council – amid fears that frustration could spill over into violence.
For Anwar Abu Sabu, who these days hobbles around on crutches after taking an Israeli bullet in the back, the choices are simple. He sees little hope in Jenin, where he takes home just 1,300 shekels (approximately $350) a month in disability allowance, a sum that must support his wife and four children.
Mr. Abu Sabu thinks the UN bid is doomed, and suggests a return to armed resistance aimed at the Israeli military in the West Bank, and not Israel, to achieve Palestinian statehood.
“If the UN fails, if Abbas fails and raises his hand saying, ‘I cannot achieve your rights,’ then a new time will start,” he says. “[Abbas] will not declare an armed resistance. It is not his role. Every generation must have its own leader.”
It is a somber assessment, and a view that gains little traction in Ramallah, where many simply feel they have too much to lose from a new cycle of violence and bloodshed.
“We don’t want [a new] intifada. The people want peace,” says Ayman Mondaher, a financial manager. “We just want a normal life, we just want to educate our children.”