Sudip K Roy

..."travel as far as you can, as long as you can". I subscribe to this concept.What I love most is travelling. This desire to travel took me to various innocuous places, one of which is the Palestine City of Ramallah in West Bank.It's theadministrative Capital of Palestine National Authority [PNA]. 

Ramallah does not have a civilian Airport. One has to travel to BenGurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel and then reach Ramallah by road. Alternately, the place can be accessed by road from Jordan. I travelled from Jordanian Capital, Amman and crossed King Hussain Bridge [also known as Allenby Bridge] at Jordan-Israel Border to enter Israel. Border crossing is through a Land Port akin to our International Check Points with Bangladesh.But owing to prevailing security situation, extremely high level of securityprotocol is maintained. In fact an uncanny feeling coupled with absolute silence greets a traveler crossing into Israel though the Land Border Check Point. Officials and Security Personnel are very courteous & helpful but they hardly speak. Did not notice anyone of them smiling. Members of Israel Defense Force [IDF] in full battle gear man all positions in small groups of 2s/3s. Mostly very young boys and girls, may be doing their compulsory Military Service, are at the forefront. They wear grim stone faces and an unusual determination. My Israeli Guide [a Palestinian gentleman] told that Army Sharp Shooters/Snipers are positioned at vintage points. He advised extreme caution and complete compliance of oral or written instructions, as any wrong move is an invitation to certain death ordetention.   

As I entered Israel, the surroundings changed dramatically from barren desert & poor infrastructure, particularly roads in Jordan to excellent network of 4 to 6 lane Expressways. Although the same stretch of desert extends to Israel, but it is transformed into irrigated and cultivated agricultural fields. It is green all around, Orchards and large Waterbodies, Vineyards, Date Palm& Banana,and various Citrus fruit plantationsare in abundance. Change in ecology is also visible. There are lots of birds as against none on the Jordanian side of border. 

These developments happened in last 04 decades or so and now Israel is not only self-sufficient but also surplus in agricultural &horticultural produces. Even seeing is not believing. Produces are exported worldwide.Road side small village markets are overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables. Checked and found that prices are lower than what we pay in our markets for similar products [01 Israeli Shekel [ISL]is equivalent to about 19.80 INR]. 

On way to Ramallah, drove through the Town of Jericho, claimed by Christians as the Oldest City in the world. It's sort of an Oasis in a desert. Journey continues for another 43 KM before I reached Ramallah on my first trip to Palestine. Ramallah is 10 km north of Jerusalem. Its present population isabout 40,000. It was historically an Arab Christian town but now Muslimsare majority with Christians being a significant minority. 

Like many of my countrymen, I also had perceived Palestine Territory as a whole and Ramallah in particular to be a conflict zone full of poverty stricken people residing in Refugee Camps surviving on doles received through United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR]. But as I moved around  the old Quartersmy perception changed completely. It is a peaceful place full for affluent people. Massive Villas line up the streets. Latest models of cars wiz past at high speed. Well-dressed healthy men, women and children are all around.Commercial District is lined up with well stocked Brand Shops selling imported merchandise of all varieties. Interestingly, there is no dearth of Liquor Shops in a Muslim majority City. Affluence is visible. Signs of poverty are definitely not more glaring than what can be witnessed in urban fringes in developed countries. Sign of affluence is intriguing primarily because of the fact that Palestine with little resources of its own, solely depends on revenue shared by Israel and donations that pour in from different parts of the world. People generally seem to be happy except their almost universal hatred for Israel.

After spending couple of days in the City, I could make out that Ramallah is a refreshing mix of local, traditional and cosmopolitan culture. Even a short stay here gave me the opportunity to discover the modern face of Palestine, in a vibrant and liberal city, proud of its heritage.

Ramallah is closely associated with Yasser Arafat. Post OsloAccords of 1993 based on which the Palestine National Authority was set up in 1994 with its Headquarters in this city. Arafat as Chairman of Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] headed the Transitional Administration. The Presidential Secretariat Complex was also established here. Till his last days Yasser Arafat lived and worked out of this Complex. 

It is worthwhile mentioning that Oslo Accords are a set of Agreements between the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed in phases since 1993. It triggered a peace process aimed at fulfilling the "right of the Palestinian people to self-determination"afterPalestine Liberation Organization [PLO]recognized the State of Israel and the recognition by Israel of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The Oslo Accords created a Palestinian National Authority [PNA] tasked with limited self-governance in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Stripidentified as Areas-A & B. Area-A comprises approximately of 19% and Area-B about 22%of the West Bank.These areas are home to some 2.8 million Palestinians. Oslo Accords, however, did not create a Palestinian State, although the PNA uses the term 'Palestine State' in their Official documents.

Ramallah is closely associated with Yasser Arafatwho as Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] headed the Transitional Administration. The Presidential Secretariat Complex [a.k.aMukataa] was set up here. Till his last days Yasser Arafat lived and worked out of this Complex. After capture of the West Bank by Israel from Jordan in 1967 war, this Complex was Israeli Military Headquarters. In 1996, Arafat moved in and Mukataa became the Official Headquarters of PNA. It is popularly known as Arafat's Compound. As President of PNA, Yasser Arafat lived and worked out of the Presidential Complex till his death in 2004.

Duringthe tumultuous days of 1970s, the very nameof Yasser Arafatwas sufficient to attract attention. A charismatic personality, for some he was the Arabian version of Ernesto Che Guevara, a symbol of liberation while for others, a terrorist whose hands are soaked in blood of innocents. What he actually was is still hotly debated, even in Palestine.  

Yasser Arafat was born on 24August 1929 to Palestinian parents in Cairo, Egypt where he completed his studies. In student days itself he embraced Arab nationalist ideals and opposed creation of the State of Israel. Sometimes in 1950s he co-founded Fatah, a paramilitary organization which later formed the core of Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO]. By 1969 Yasser Arafat rose in the hierarchy to become Chairman of PLO. Between 1969 & till he became President of the Palestine National Authority [PNA] in 2004, Arafat's career was embroiled in armed conflicts with authorities in Jordan, Lebanon, partly Tunisia and of course the State of Israel. Under his leadership, PLO continued to hittargets in Israel, both military & civilian.

Meanwhile in 1990, Arafat secretlymarried a very young girl named Suhain Tunisia. Suha was 27 and Arafat 61 years of age then. Suha was Christian by birth but converted to Islam to marry Arafat. Their daughter ZahwaArafat was born in1995. Within a short period of marriage, Suha regretted her decision and publicly stated that "it was the biggest mistake of her life" and she wanted to end her marriage. However she continued to remain with Arafat.

With the Interim Administration led by Arafat in position, situation was more or less peaceful in Palestine. But by 2001 there had been spate of violent protests [Intifada] which culminated in suicide bomb attacks on Israeli civilian & military targets. Situation reached a flash point in early 2002with assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister, RehavamZeeviallegedly by PLO elements.Reportedly, 6 [six] of the assailants took refuge inside Arafat's Compound. Israel responded with massive force, laid a siege of the Compound demanding the fugitives be handed over. Under tremendous pressure from  Americans, Israel agreed to lift the siege but kept West Bank under its military control. Units of IDF were deployed all around.    

By the time siege ended in May 2002, an Islamic Jihadi carried out a suicide attack on a civilian target in Israel causing several casualties. This was a sufficient instigation for Israel to immediately retaliate.InJune 2002 Arafat's Compound was partly demolished by Israeli Forces and again a siege was laid. Tanks, Armored Personnel Carriers and Bulldozers were positioned around the Compound. Arafat was interned along with his Personal Guards and some Officials. No one was allowed to enter or exit the Compound. The USA& Israel held Arafat personally responsible for sponsoring terrorattacks on Israel. Siege continued for about 3(three) months before being partly eased under pressure from international community.

But security situation did not show much improvement. In fact spate of violence spiraled out of control of the Interim Administration. Things got complicated in September 2002 when a suicide bomber struck in Tel Aviv. Israel responded instantly by demolishing most of the remaining buildings in Arafat's Compound and placing the rest undera brutal siege. Arafat and few of his men were however allowed to stay put inside the Compound.

Leaving apart only portion of the building where Arafat and his close people remained, rest of the Compound was razed to the ground. The siege continued till terminally ill Yasser Arafathad to be airlifted by a French Helicopter for treatment to Paris in October 2004. Till that time, Arafat & his Personal Guards and few confidantes lived a frugal life inside the Compound surrounded by IDF Soldiers. 

Living under restrictions during consecutive sieges mounted by Israel, health of Yasser Arafat deteriorated. Palestinians allege that Israel poisoned him but there is no independent corroboration. In the early days of November, 2004, Arafat was airlifted by French Government for treatment in a Paris Military Hospital. Initially he responded to treatment and even observed Ramadan but the end came abruptly on 11 November 2004. Cause of his death is still shrouded in mystery. 

Arafat wished to be buried in Jerusalem but Israel did not allow it. So Palestinian & PLO leadership decided that Arafat will be "temporarily" interned insideMukataa Compound itself. It was contemplated that on establishment of a Palestine State his mortal remains will be transferred to final resting place in Jerusalem. A Message on Arafat's Tomb written in Arabic indicatesthat the final resting place of Arafat shall be in Jerusalem, if it comes under Palestinian control [As translated for me by my Guide]. The Tomb is guarded by a pair of Palestinian Soldiers in Ceremonial Uniform. A Museum was subsequently constructed by Palestinian Authority beside the Tomb. It's mainly a photo gallery depicting journey of Yasser Arafat from birth to his last days. Some very rare historical photographs are on display.

As in life so in death, Yasser Arafat remained equally controversial and mysterious. On 3 (three) occasions autopsy was conducted to ascertain the cause of his death. First one was conducted in France. Cause of death could not be ascertained. In 2012,Suha Arafat agreed and Arafat's body was exhumed for second detailed post mortem by a team of Specialists from Russia, France & Palestine and the last one by Specialists from Switzerland. Unfortunately, none could pinpoint cause of his death and none of thetwo reports are identical. But most Palestinians believe that death of Yasser Arafat was caused by Israel through exposure to Radioactive Plutonium. While controversy rages unabated, Suha Arafat, widow of Yasseris living a quiet comfortable life in the Mediterranean island of Malta on a monthly Pension of $ 10,000 and other unspecified financial benefits granted by Palestinian Authority.
This travelogue is based on my interactions withcross section of residents of West Bank, bothPalestinians & Israelis and with help received from # The Tourist Information Center, PNA, West Bank, #Security Officer of Arafat's Compound, Ramalla, # Receptionist of Yasser Arafat Museum, Ramalla, # Interpreter at Yasser Arafat Museum, Ramalla, and of course # My Guide, # All photographs are shot my me except the Official Photoof Yasser Arafat which was sourced from PNA.


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