I visited Palestine for the first time this month. Although there only for an all too brief week, I did manage to visit Ramallah, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. None were as expected, especially Gaza. But this story relates to Ramallah.

Following my quizzing on arrival at Ben Gurion (normal people don’t go to Ramallah), I was taken by taxi to my hotel in the West Bank HQ of the Palestinian Authority. From the airport one drives alongside fences and walls almost the whole way, until finally one reaches the hideous concrete fortifications that bound the roadside and the armed Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint into the West Bank. But then the change occurs. Once past the checkpoint and into Ramallah itself, the walls and fences remain behind, and one is in a Middle East city with yes, ‘normal’ life. People walking the pavements, sitting in cafes along the streets, and the traffic relatively benign (until there are demonstrations or delays at the crossing point). Of course, this picture is deceptive. Ramallah is an island, and the walls start again soon enough as one travels out from it.

The intricately complicated, bizarre and eminently ridiculous and frustrating system that the occupying Israelis have developed across the West Bank makes the former South African apartheid system look wholly amateurish. Areas A, B and C, swirl around each other, with almost every tract of more desirable land – take the Jordan Valley for a start – falling in Area C. It’s significance? This is the territory the Israelis are trying to make their own. Their settlements are here, and they control it, disproving, for instance, over 97% of permit requests by Palestinians to build or even repair structures in this area, including those for health and educational purposes (hence donors and aid agencies now establish ‘mobile clinics’). Flying in from Amman, you can see the pattern below. A rugged landscape with Israeli, walled settlements on the hilltops, recognizable by their new, identikit houses and layouts – and the cleared immediate environs. Then across the valleys on the next hills, the more higgledy piggeldy, white, older houses of the Palestinians, organic settlements in marked contrast to the isolated order on the adjacent hills. And then there are the roads. Highways that are sparsely trafficked, and when you trace their genealogy, you realise they never touch the white housing areas. These are served only by narrower, older tracks that wind their way tortuously to escape the arterial routes that serve the alien body only.

And so, having seen this landscape, arriving into a city where people go about their business and largely ignore you as a foreigner – few live in Ramallah, since it isn’t easy to get the permits to do so and the donor, and hence aid agency offices are in East Jerusalem – is at first a pleasant surprise.

The second day I was in Ramallah, at the end of office hours I had one more interview to conduct, and got taken on foot into the centre of Ramallah. My companion was Fida Shafi, CARE’s new gender equity program director, who took me down one of her favourite streets. This was not only because of the trees lining the road, but also as we could sit on a low wall eating falafels in peace with the low pedestrian traffic attracted in the early evening, even though the main pedestrian area was just above. From there we wondered into the old part of Ramallah and another of Fida’s favourite places, a music school. On its rooftop, which afforded a view on two sides across Ramallah (see photo of Fida and the city), she told me the history of the school.

PalestineblogAl Kamandjati, the music school whose roof we were standing on, was established by Ramzi Aburedwan, now a well known Palestinian violinist, who has trained in both the US and Europe and now hosts an annual Baroque Music Festival in Ramallah. But Ramzi’s origins are not those of most musicians. Like Fida, he was a Palestinian refugee, and in his case, became a poster boy for the Palestinians when he was captured (on film) aged just 9 throwing stones at the Israelis during the early days of the Intifida.

Later, when Ramzi was still just 17, this person of passion and intensity came to the notice of Mohammed Fadel, a Palestinian music teacher, who persuaded him to try playing the violin, rather than continuing to lead a life that would only take him to an Israeli prison, or worse. He was a natural musician and then within a year brought to the US for a workshop, and then offered a scholarship in France in 2000. Now Al Kamandjati, the foundation he established, teaches music to more than 400 students in Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East.

It is a remarkable story, captured in the poster below – which Fida wanted to show me on one of the walls of the centre, but had been taken down during repainting that was being carried out. During the whole of my time in Ramallah, but brought home intensely by this story, I was struck by the unnecessariness of it all, of how much you can follow what is totally the wrong road, when your primary motivation is fear and you totally forget the equal humanity of the other.

Palestineblog2Nobody in Palestine is particularly optimistic about the future at this point in time. Even the two state solution appears to belong to a brief optimistic period in the past, but never to have been truly bought into by the Israelis. In fact, their whole strategy appears only to buy time – and then, yet more time – whilst they continue to push their control and their settlements out into Area C. This necessitates an ever more surreal accompaniment of physical security measures, at an economic cost to Israel and its backers that can only be increasingly astronomical.

And never mind the social cost. That is sad on many fronts. But in Ramallah, this, for the most part, peaceful island city in the midst of the occupation, the story of Ramzi Aburedwan and the music association he has established still provides a physical and metaphorical symbolism of the future that could be.

(Notes: see more on Ramzi Aburedwan’s story at http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2008/12/19/58217/stone-thrower-turned-violini…, and on Al Kamandjati at http://www.alkamandjati.com/en/project/history/)