A first journey into Ramallah can induce a mild adrenalin rush for those unused to Israeli soldiers, guns and checkpoints. But, once in the outskirts of this West Bank city, the fervour of security gives way to an almost rural calm.
Although some of the white-and-pink limestone buildings bear the pockmarks of gun battles, it is the winding and hilly streets, where children play in spotless school uniforms, that force vehicles to slow down and their passengers to take in their surroundings.
Ramallah has no architectural glories or historic landmarks to draw visitors. Its attraction lies in the very ordinariness of everyday life in the midst of conflict and occupation. The local policeman waves you across potholed roads with a bemused smile. Just around a corner, a gap between buildings offers an angled view of the stony, biblical hills surrounding the city.
Mosques and women in headscarves are prevalent. But Ramallah is also home to Quaker schools, yuppie gyms, restaurants, bars and galleries that provide a haven from the almost constant political conflict.
Palestinians are used to foreigners and meet many journalists, aid workers, diplomats and peacenik Israelis. Intense debates of historical grievances are usually accompanied by Arab hospitality of food, drink and jokes.
Ramallah has been transformed over the past 60 years. In the early 20th century it was a provincial, predominantly Christian town dotted with villas for rich Palestinians escaping the summer heat of coastal Jaffa.
But the town was forced to absorb massive influxes of Palestinian refugees after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its Six-Day War against Egpyt, Syria and Jordan in 1967.
Unlike the historic West Bank cities of Nablus, Hebron and, of course, Jerusalem, Ramallah’s relative modernity has better enabled it to cope with transformation.
Its present incarnation started with the Oslo accords of 1993, which gave the Palestinians limited self-rule but also intensified Israel’s separation of the West Bank and Ramallah from Jerusalem, which is less than 10 miles away.
Palestinians yearn for Jerusalem but most cannot go there because Israeli checkpoints prevent them from moving freely around the West Bank. Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state remains a distant dream and Ramallah has become the de facto, if reluctant, Palestinian capital for politics, business and culture. In the restaurants and bars of this enclosed world, smart-suited officials from the Palestinian Authority’s government offices and ministries rub shoulders with budding filmmakers.
US and European governments warn their citizens against visiting. But foreigners can move more easily than Palestinians between the disparate worlds of Israel and the occupied territories. Convoys of diplomats swishing through town are a common sight. All other foreigners will either need their own car or a friendly taxi driver to navigate the numerous checkpoints to enter the city through Israel’s West Bank separation barrier, which around Ramallah is mostly an eight-metre-high concrete wall.
Overseas friends who visited me always wanted to see the late Yassir Arafat’s offices because of the iconic images of his Mukata, or headquarters, being shelled and besieged by the Israeli army. Arafat died in 2004 and the Mukata now contains his tomb.
The guards at the Mukata’s gates look fierce but a polite request will win a smile and entry to the tomb in the large courtyard.
Near the Mukata is a fast-food landmark. Falafel Abu Loay has been run by the eponymous owner since he left the northern city of Jenin after an Israeli army incursion in 2002. Abu Loay is deaf but his loyal customers will park on the kerb near his stall and hold up the appropriate number of digits to signal how many orders they want.
Ramallah’s restaurants and bars are always packed, even though they are too expensive for many Palestinians. Conversation with strangers is easy, usually over a selection of mezze or salads and nargileh, or bubbly water-pipe.
There is the Upside Down Café where a tableau of chairs and tables glued to the ceiling serves as decoration. Palestinian journalists like to gather here and their ranks swelled with a small exodus of Palestinians who fled the Gaza Strip after Hamas took over last June. Darna’s restaurant is for the elite. Palestinian negotiators will huddle with diplomats next to tables of ladies who lunch. Pronto’s around the corner is much more informal, for aid workers and Palestinian artists.
In the summer, drinkers and diners will spill over to pavement tables, undeterred by the growing Islamisation of Palestinian society. If there is tension, provoked by either an Israeli army raid or by militant youths known as the shebab, public places quickly empty.
Film festivals, art exhibitions, dance and theatre are all booming in Ramallah, promoted with the help of foreign donors and the Palestinian diaspora dispersed around the rest of the world. Such activities are vital for a population who are increasingly imprisoned in their city. At a recent book reading, I chatted with a local human rights lawyer now author, Rajah Shehadeh, who spoke about his love for the nearby hills.
He wrote in his book Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape how the surrounding terrain had shrunk because of Israeli settlements: “Perhaps the curse of Palestine is its centrality to the west’s historical and biblical imagination. The landscape is thus cut to match the grim events recorded there.”
Sharmila Devi is the FT’s former Jerusalem correspondent