Mural of Palestinian Leader Marwan Barghouti on Wall near Ramallah, Qalandia checkpoint. All photos by Rhonda Spivak.
RAMALLAH, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY – As peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are set to begin, a recent visit to Ramallah this August provided very little evidence of support for P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas on the streets.
At the Kalandia checkpoint, on the Israeli security fence or “wall’ as the Palestinians refer to it, there is a gigantic mural of Yasser Arafat that appears to have been painted by a professional artist. Next to it there is an equally huge mural of Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti, a native son of Ramallah who is in Israeli prison after having been convicted for seven counts of murder. Barghouti is a Palestinian leader believed by many to be far more popular than Abbas.
What is obviously missing from this scene on the “wall” is a mural of Abbas himself, notwithstanding that has been leader of the PA since 2005.
A large billboard of a Palestinian terrorist with a machine gun and the date of his death dominates the old centre of Ramallah. There is no similar billboard of Abbas anywhere nearby. A Westerner I meet tells me that there are more billboards glorifying violence similar to this one in Jenin.
Elsewhere in the centre of town on a stone building, there is a very large placard of Yassir Arafat and Saddam Hussein, the former leader of Iraq. Arafat supported Hussein in the Gulf war and Hussein supported Arafat’s terrorism by providing money for the families of suicide bombers after their deaths. Although a new Day’s Inn, a symbol of all things American is being built in Ramallah, it will be co-existing rather unnaturally with the image of Sadam Hussein not so far away.
There are still many old posters of Arafat on store fronts around Ramallah, and a taxi driver I met had a photo of Arafat hung from his front mirror.
Notwithstanding, I looked for posters of Abbas, the only ones spotted were a very small sticker with Arafat and Abbas on a door of a store, and a larger poster of Abbas also with Arafat. There was only one place where I could find a sign of Abbas by himself, without Arafat. It was in the newly re-built modern looking Muqata, the PA government compound itself. But as a European resident of Ramallah told me quietly as we passed by this sign, “This poster of Abbas doesn’t count. After all, it is in front of Abbas’s office,” implying that it is to be expected to find it there.
Although Ramallah has been experiencing economic growth and has become a de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority- where diplomatic missions are located and government buildings and courthouses are being constructed- there is not one store I could find that had any souvenirs at all with Abbas on them.
In fact, the only touristy shop I could find was one inviting tourists to come in and have a photo taken of themselves inside a “real’ Bedouin tent. Missing were other tourist stores which one might have expected to find selling items such as Abbas T-shirts or coffee cups or key chains or postcards.
Notwithstanding that Abbas has been the Palestinian President since 2005, after Arafat’s death, it appears that no Palestinian entrepreneur has thought it worthwhile to begin producing items such as Abbas postcards or buttons for in Ramallah or Bethlehem or Jericho nearby. Is this a sign of Abbas’s lack of popularity on the ground?
The fact that images other than those of Abbas ( be they of Arafat, Marwan Barghouti and Saddam Hussein) flourish on the streets of Ramallah, rather than of Abbas, left me with the impression that if an election were held today in the Palestinian Authority (one which was to have occurred by January 2010, some eight months ago), Abbas may not even be able to carry Ramallah in a vote. And Ramallah is a place which I would have thought would be Abbas’s stronghold. And if Abbas couldn’t carry Ramallah, where in the West Bank would he be victorious ?
In this regard, it is worth remembering that in 2007, Hamas not Abbas won elections in all districts in the West Bank. In July of this year, Salam Fayyad announced that no municipal elections that were scheduled to take place would occur. Presumably Fatah feared it may not have won over Hamas.
HOW SICK IS ABBAS?
Athough the London-based Arabic-language Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper reported in April 2010 that Abbas was in poor health, the Arabic print newspapers in the West Bank did not report on this, according to a source in Ramallah.
The Palestinian media Ma’an did publish the report in English, but the source said that most West Bank Palestinians still get their news from the print media not the internet, particularly in the older generation and in more rural communities.
On April 20th, Ynet News, the online English language Israeli news website of Yedioth Achronot picked up the story about Abbas’s poor health, saying that “According to the report [in Al-Quds Al-Arabi], Abbas visited one of the biggest private hospitals in the Jordanian capital of Amman many times in the past three month, and six times in the past few weeks.
“The report did not provide any specific details on Abbas’s medical condition or the illness he is suffering from. Private doctors interviewed by the paper estimated that he was suffering from a serious infection in some parts of his body, from high blood pressure or exhaustion, and even from heart problems.
According th the Ynet News report“The newspaper [Al-Quds Al-Aeabi]added that only a few of Abbas’ associates were aware of his real medical condition.”
A Palestinian official later denied to another reporter that Abbas was suffering from poor health.
A source in ramallah said that there is talk about Israel freeing Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti who may be a unity leader “able to act as a bridge between Fatah and Hamas’ in exchange for Israel’s Gilad Shalit, athough there is no indication that this is about to happen.