'I went to Ramallah and saw path to peace'

By Matthew Herman, January 27, 2011
Matthew visits the Palestinian Authority’s media centre in the West Bank

Matthew visits the Palestinian Authority’s media centre in the West Bank

On Boxing Day, while most people were battling their way through the sales, I was in Ramallah, battling my own preconceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of the Union of Jewish Students' annual Manhigut political trip to Israel.

My only previous experience of Ramallah had been seeing TV images of Yasser Arafat's headquarters surrounded by bulldozers during the second intifada.

I was slightly apprehensive to be part of the first British Jewish youth group entering the Palestinian city. However, I needn't have been.

The city is as modern and built up as many Israeli cities and felt equally as safe. Those that we met were hospitable and keen to impress.

After meeting Palestinians and travelling around Ramallah I had a much clearer image of the path to peace by the end of the day.

Walking into the office of the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, it was hard not to feel underwhelmed – the building is on a business park and is shared with a graphic design agency.

However, it very quickly became evident why Dr Erekat has risen to the top of his game. He is able to tailor his message to be attractive to his audience.

His underlying message was positive – peace is a matter of when rather than if. Although Dr Erekat blamed Binyamin Netanyahu and continued settlement building for the failure to achieve a final peace settlement, I got the impression he was merely toeing the party line.

Instead, it appears that public opinion on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides is not yet ready to pressure leaders into taking bold steps. The release this week of the Palestine Papers may of course change much of this.

We met a group of young Palestinians, graduates of the Seeds for Peace programme, an initiative designed to promote dialogue between young Palestinians and Israelis.

One of the "Seeds" failed to recognise the legitimacy of the Jewish people's right to self-determination in Israel. At first, this worried me – the "Seeds" had been presented to us as moderates. But it slowly became apparent that the programme promoted tolerance, while doing little to challenge long-established narratives.

What worried me more was the relative apathy of the "Seeds". A final peace settlement means very little to them. They were either living comfortably in Jordan or the US as part of the Palestinian diaspora, or were living in thriving neighbourhoods in cities under full Palestinian control.

One Seed's biggest concern was about when he would be freely able to visit Haifa again. As we shared a meal and shisha in a comfortable restaurant, it became very apparent: for them the status quo works.

Returning to Jerusalem through the infamous Kalandia checkpoint reminded us of a harsh reality – living under military control is not pleasant. Narrow, fenced queuing areas and a lack of human involvement in security checks are, unfortunately, an unpleasant necessity.

For the people who have to cross through the checkpoint every day to make a livelihood and for the Palestinians living under full or partial Israeli control in less prosperous parts of the West Bank, the status quo is not working.

These are the people who are applying pressure to the government and at the moment these are the people who are being driven by extremists.

If the moderate Palestinians and the moderate Israelis do not speak up and put pressure on their governments to act soon, the extremists will become more vociferous and make any settlement more prolonged and painful.

Matthew, 19, is a second year history student at Oxford University. He is from Northwood, London

Last updated: 11:13am, January 27 2011