The streets of Ramallah, unlike those of most other West Bank cities, are usually free of Israeli soldiers. Despite appearances, however, the army has stamped its control on the West Bank’s capital as certainly as its tanks have left deep tread marks on the city’s main roads. Nowadays soldiers move in only occasionally from their entrenched positions around the city to patrol the streets, make arrests or further humiliate the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat. Their power is so absolute they have little need to assert it. The besieged militants of Ramallah, at least those not dead or imprisoned, are apparently as cowed as Arafat, who has been holed up since December 2001 in the Muqata, surrounded by mountains of rubble which were once the buildings of his large compound of district offices.
As the dust settles in Israel, pundits and journalists have been digesting the meaning of the country’s election results: the huge swing to Likud, the unprecedented collapse of the left and the emergence of an embittered and anti-religious Ashkenazi sect in the shape of Shinui. The significance of these changes will only become apparent over the next months as Ariel Sharon struggles to form and hold together a coalition government made up of the new combustible elements at his disposal. But another seismic electoral shift has gone entirely unremarked: the severing of the last vestiges of political co-operation between Israeli Jews and Arabs.
After months of diplomatic inactivity, the phone lines between Jerusalem and Ramallah were again buzzing this week as meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials were hastily arranged. The contacts began on Wednesday last week with a secret meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the chairman of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Qureia (Abu-Alaa). The talks, which came to light two days later, were reportedly held under intense American pressure and with the US ambassador, Dan Kurtzer, present. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said he had approved the meeting in advance.
It’s strange to watch a film surrounded by most of the cast, especially when the presentation is not at a glittery London or New York première. But in the case of Elia Suleiman’s surprise hit movie, “Divine Intervention,” in which a fair proportion of Nazareth’s 70,000 inhabitants feature, it was difficult to avoid cast members at a screening in the city last week. Like everyone else, they paid to get in. Many critics have mistakenly assumed that the movie, a surreal and comic attack on the Israeli occupation, is set in the Palestinian territories. That is why, although it charmed audiences at Cannes, winning the Jury Prize, it disturbed the Oscar committee, which banned it from the competition on the grounds that its country of origin, Palestine, is not a “legitimate nation.”
Israel’s President Moshe Katsav called each of the political parties into his office in turn on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to ask who they wanted as the next prime minister. Apart from the demurring voices of Labour, Meretz and the Arab parties, Ariel Sharon won resounding support. If Israeli coalition-building were a simple mathematical exercise Sharon would have no problems in deciding his cabinet. With Likud armed with almost a third of the 120 Knesset seats he could fashion a government by mixing religious, settler and secular parties, thus securing the 61 MKs required to run the country. But Sharon looks almost as anxious after his rout of the left — Labour down to 19 seats and Meretz to six — as he did during the election campaign, when he and his party faced a series of corruption scandals.
A tangled mess of crumpled aluminium sheets and bent steel girders that a fortnight ago were the shops of Nazlat Issa’s market line the last stretch of the 100- metre stretch of road from the Israeli town of Baqa Al-Gharbiya to the military checkpoint guarding entry into the West Bank. Drivers, waiting to pass, sit idly in their cars next to the wreckage but already the strange sight is barely noticed. The demolished market is just another contour of the disfigured physical and human landscape Israel is fashioning out of the West Bank and Gaza. The demolition of Palestinian homes is now so commonplace that it barely raises eyebrows, let alone protest. But the razing of 62 shops, from grocery stores to a pharmacy and a furniture showroom, set new standards of destructiveness by the army. Even the Israeli media briefly took note.