As Ramallah prepared for the Eid al-Adha (Muslim holiday), boxes of oranges appeared along the sidewalks and streets outside shops selling fruits and vegetables. The oranges also ripened on trees planted years ago, here and there in small private yards around individual stone houses in central Ramallah, a colorful contrast to their deep green leaves after the occasional recent winter rains have washed the summers’ dust off the foliage. There is otherwise an almost total absence of any public floral decoration in Ramallah, at any time of year – and, by contrast with East Jerusalem, relatively very few colored lights hung on the streets or displayed in the windows of indiv idual homes or apartments for the Muslim holiday.
Palestinian TV this week has been showing lengthy footage of the travels of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas continuing his week-long trip through Latin America. But the top news story was the progress of Muslim pilgrims making the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Abbas, in Chile, was still talking about the Goldstone Report, justifying what almost everybody else believes was a catastrophic insensitivity to the impact of what was apparently a casual decision to defer consideration in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva until March 2010 – and then backtracking, in response to the public outcry that Abbas said he bitterly resented, but apparently without fully absorbing or even comprehending.
Even before, Fatah loyalists complained that Abbas was spending two-thirds of his time away from the Palestinian territory, visiting world capitals. Palestinians at every level are decrying the absence of leadership – and waiting passively either for the deliverance they demand from the occupation, or for the next catastrophe.
What remains, in the President’s absence, are two large new billboards on Irsal Street, imprinted with full-color Presidential photographs – one covering the entire side of a multi-story office building, which shows a smiling Abbas in a dark grey suit walking on a paved garden path with rose bushes lining either side. Abbas has certainly seen them – they’re impossible to miss, and his convoy passes by several times a day, when the President is in town – but he hasn’t ordered their removal, in contrast to what he did on his birthday last July, after Palestinian security officers were seen in the early morning all over town putting up smaller presidential portraits, then soon afterwards obeying new orders, following the President’s expression of displeasure, to take them down.
UPDATE: The large poster of Abbas walking down the garden path between the rose bushes has been removed, and replaced with a full-color, four-story high poster for XL, an energy drink…
Two recent rare Presidential visits out of Ramallah, to Jenin and to Hebron, did little to change the public mood. Palestinian television showed crowds of bussed-in supporters, including large groups of schoolchildren, waving small Palestinian flags and wearing yellow Fatah baseball caps and narrow kuffiyeh-print fabric draped around their necks. The events were rebroadcast at length on Palestinian Television.
Palestinian security was omnipresent – those closest to the President wear business suits and talk into devices discretely positioned somewhere in their clothing. Black-uniformed and heavily armed special forces ride in the open backs of black trucks, some manning large automatic weapons mounted on the cabs of the trucks. Guards in camouflague are posted all along the length of streets that are closed to traffic, with a lot of urgent blowing of horns and orders blared over microphones in advance of the movements of the
Presidential cavalcade, now numbering some 15 vehicles, with an ambulance on the back, and the presidential sedan (which changes) is flanked front and back by two black-windowed black vans bristling with crowns of communications and other antennas on their roofs. Neighbors complain this causes interference with their satellite TV reception.
The Israeli press has reported – and unnamed Palestinian officials have denied – that (as the Jerusalem Post’s Defense Correspondent Yaakov Katz recently wrote) “whenever PA President Mahmoud Abbas travels outside of Ramallah to another Palestinian city, the IDF, Shin Bet and Civil Administration are all involved to coordinate and ensure his safety”. An Israeli military official told Katz that “When Abbas travels it is like a military operation … Everyone is involved since the PA forces cannot yet completely ensure his security”.
Meanwhile, a newly-outfitted group of Palestinian security forces, in olive green uniforms with olive green combat helmets, elastic bands around the lower legs of their pants, and big black weapons were posted at major traffic intersections in Ramallah during the Eid (holiday) period. They bore an eerie resemblance to American troops patrolling in Iraq.
Very close to offices and homes in central areas of the PA’s de facto capital, Israeli settlements sit on a number of nearby hilltops. The Israeli military’s Beit El “Civil Administration” headquarters, a British Mandate era position, is not more than a kilometer away from President Abbas’ red-tiled villa. Not far from Abbas’ house in the other direction, is the Israeli residential settlement of Beit El, encroaching on the open ground closer and closer to the Jalazone refugee camp. Nearly a dozen Palestinian adolescents have been shot over the past year in or just outside the refugee camp – and some died, causing heartbreak for individual families but little public outcry. Israeli security forces say they suspected these youths of preparing attacks on the settlement.
But, this week, shops nearby the Palestinian Authority ministries were filled with employees of the bureaucracy, crowding the cash registers to pay for quantities of small and cheaply-produced ceramic coffee cups packed in satin-lined presentation boxes, in preparation for the hospitality they are required and want as a matter of pride to extend in response to socially obligatory visits, first from close family members, then on subsequent days from friends and acquaintances, as life goes on during the holidays.