Separation wall pictured close to Bethlehem. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

RAMALLAH — It might be unwitting irony, but the coffee-shop overlooking central Ramallah tips its hat to an American consumer icon, in what might otherwise be deemed an outpost of anti-Americanism.

Inside Stars and Bucks, Ramallah. (Simon Roughneen)

Stars and Bucks cafe in downtown Ramallah is branded with almost the same colour scheme as the better-known global chain from which it plays its name, a hue pretty close to Islamic green.

Hummus and labaneh are on the menu should the customer want a more “authentic” experience than just downing a Middle East macchiato. Inside, some women wore in Western garb, others wore Islamic garb. All kept to their own tables, silent behind outsized sunglasses or tapping away on laptops. Some men lounged on sofas, puffing on shishas and just as silent as their female counterparts as they watched a World Cup football mismatch between Portugal and North Korea.

Outside traffic crawled through the streets and pedestrians meandered in the 34 degree heat. Downhill from Ramallah’s centre-point at al-Manara square and the iconic coffee shop, a lush fruit and vegetable market was packed high with greens and reds, browns and yellows, while shoppers browsed melons, tomatoes, onions.

“You need to ask if you want to take photos here”, said stall owner who called himself Ashraf, leaning out over his stall to make himself heard over the din of hagglers — before happily posing behind his produce.

Since 2008, the Palestinian Authority has implemented some institutional reforms and economic development, supported by more than US$3 billion in foreign donor assistance.

Growing if still limited Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation has contributed, with an estimated US$4billion annual turnover, and the U.N. says Israel has dismantled 20 percent of its West Bank checkpoints in the past year.

Fruit and vegetable market near al-Manara Sq, Ramallah. (Simon Roughneen)

However the overall standard-of-living is officially below that seen prior the second intifada, and 505 checkpoints still hinder travel.

Ameen, a 22 year old from a village near Jericho, believes that life has not improved for Palestinians in the West Bank. “I have not been to Jerusalem in six years, not since I took a Palestinian ID”, he said.

The contested city, site of landmark holy sites for Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is just 15 kilometers away.

Even closer to Jerusalem, residents of Bethlehem can look right across into the iconic, contested city, which both Palestinians and Israelis want as their capital.

Depending on the location, that view is marred by Israel’s unfinished security fence — or segregation wall — depending on who you are talking to.

“I cannot go to Jerusalem, unless God forbid, I get sick”, said Mr. Sadeh, who earns a living as a tour guide at the city’s Church of the Nativity, within which lies the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

His plight mirrors that of millions of Palestinians whose day-to-day life is hampered severely by Israeli security requirements, of which the wall is the most potent and visible restriction.

Getting back to Jerusalem from this tourist draw was hassle-free, with Israeli soldiers waving our taxi through the checkpoint.

“See, there are no security problems here,” scoffed *David, the driver. “So they have no need for the wall,” he deadpanned.

In contrast, coming back from Ramallah meant a walk through the checkpoint  after alighting from the bus bound for Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“Visa, visa! Show me your visa”, demanded the young soldier behind the glass.

Earlier, back in Ramallah, just a ten minute walk away from al-Manara Square, the mausoleum of Yasser Arafat is open to visitors, apparently without any interrogation or security checks.

“Just leave your bag here”, said one of the soldiers manning the entry gate. Within the Mukata – HQ of the Palestinian Authority – a 120 square foot structure holds the remains of the former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader.

The tomb is surrounded on three sides by water and on one side by a piece of rail-track, symbolising what Palestinians hope to be the temporary nature of the grave, and by implication, of the current political situation in the West Bank. The stated hope is to rebury Arafat in Jerusalem sometime in the future.

Arafat’s Grave. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Across the other side, residents of Israeli neighbourhoods overlooking the same barrier see it differently. Uri Goldflam is an academic at the IDC Herzliya, and often takes visiting groups on tours of Jerusalem to give an Israeli perspective on current events relating to the city.

He acknowledges that the “security fence” has contributed to making life harsh for ordinary Palestinians, but says that with memories of suicide bombers crossing the narrow pass from the nearby West bank still fresh in Israeli minds, the barrier is necessary.

Removal, if it ever materialises, will almost-certainly require a full endgame political solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. Polls suggest that Israelis support a two-state solution, however this does not translate politically in a proportional representation vote system that facilitates a proliferation of small parties often devoted to sectarian or narrow agendas, who then have a disproportionate influence on policy in coalition governments that struggle to last full term.

No direct talks have taken place in over a year and a half, and now Israelis and Palestinians are reduced talking indirectly – a regression to a two decade-old old status quo ante.

View of the separation barrier from Jewish neighbourhood in Jerusalem. During the 2nd intifada, Palestinian suicide bombers crossed the narrow divide here into Jerusalem. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Dr Kobi Michael lives in Ashkelon, within range of Hamas rockets coming from Gaza. He says that the primary obstacle to peace is that “Palestinians, not just Hamas, do not recognise the right to a Jewish nation-state”.

He adds that Israelis need to hear this said – in Arabic – by the Palestinian leaders. Meanwhile many Palestinians think that Israel is bent on undermining a possible two-state solution by expanding settlements in what would presumably be Palestinian territory in that new state.

Within the Palestinian side, Fatah is nervously looking over its shoulder at an emboldened Hamas in Gaza. Described as a reformist, former Word Bank economist and current Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad has pushed many of the measures contributing to improved living conditions in the West Bank.

But this has not apparently bolstered Fatah, which cancelled a West Bank municipal election last week, despite the absence of Hamas from the West Bank. Word is that Fatah fears losing to independents, a further blow not only to its diminishing prestige among Palestinians, but to hopes of a solution to the conflict.

*asked that a pseudonym be used

Traffic at Israeli checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. (Simon Roughneen)
Self-described peace activists join hands at Damascus Gate, old city Jerusalem. (Simon Roughneen)
Praising God. Religious Jews dance in downtown Jerusalem. (Simon Roughneen)
Separation wall pictured close to Bethlehem. (Simon Roughneen)
View of the old city, including the Dome of the rock and al-aqsa mosque, from Jewish cemetary in East Jerusalem. Jews buried here believed that when the Messiah comes, it will be in this place, close to where King David founded the city of Jerusalem in around 1000 BC. (Simon Roughneen)
Banner close to the Mukata in Ramallah. The “right of return” is one of the most awkward issues in Israeli-Palestine negotiations. Palestinian refugees in the Middle East want the right to return to their pre-1948 family homes in what is now Israel. Israel says that this would mean the end of the Jewish state. (Simon Roughneen)

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