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The capital of Palestinian escapism

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Ramallah

Ramallah is the West Bank's political and cultural centre

On my very first day in Ramallah, a little over a year ago, I went into a small takeaway, beside the city's main Catholic Church.

In the best Arabic I could muster, I asked for a chicken pizza.

"Small or large?" said the Palestinian man behind the counter, in English. Until recently, it turned out, he'd been living in the United States.

"I was in Chicago for seven years," he told me, "but it was getting too dangerous, all the shooting, all the crime. I decided it was much safer to come back home."

Ramallah was full of surprises. Not what I'd expected of a conflict zone, of the occupied West Bank. The place immediately felt modern, liberal, relatively prosperous and, above all, relaxed.

The energy of the "downtown" part of the city quickly became addictive, with its markets and cafes and noise.

On warm evenings, it's packed with shoppers, or families on a night out - perhaps heading for a gloopy Tutti Frutti at Rukab's Ice Cream Parlour.

Groups of young men and women hang around the main square, showing off. And the upper social strata do their fair share of strutting and preening too, at a slew of fancy bars and restaurants across the city.

On a Thursday night, the beginning of the Ramallah weekend, my apartment invariably vibrates to the sounds of American R'n'B and Hip-hop coming from Sinatra's bar, down the road, catering to a mix of Muslim and Christian young people dancing and sometimes drinking.

Bloody reminder

In the past the city has, on occasion, been hit hard by the Israeli military. It was here they laid siege to the headquarters of the then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Once the army had gone, I was a little surprised to see grown Palestinian men standing by the side of the road, weeping and hugging
Occasionally still, the bubble does burst in this capital of Palestinian escapism.

One weekday last year, at about three in the afternoon, Israeli armoured jeeps moved into the centre of Ramallah, pulling up outside the most popular hummus cafe.

In full view of passers-by, including children on their way back from school, the troops dragged a man in his early 20s out of the cafe. He was a wanted militant. They shot him - first in the legs, then stomach, then his head.

Within minutes, the "Palestinian reflex" had kicked in. Schoolboys piled into the area to throw stones at the soldiers until they left. As we arrived, the troops fired back with live bullets, injuring four people, before the jeeps sped out of the city.

Israeli attack on Yasser Arafat's compound, May 2002
Ramallah has had its fair share of bloodshed during the intifada
Once the army had gone, I have to say, I was a little surprised to see grown Palestinian men standing by the side of the road, weeping and hugging, and teenagers who'd been throwing stones, breaking down.

But, of course blood is blood, and trauma is trauma.

But moments as dramatic as this have become rare in Ramallah. There are frequent search and arrest operations carried out by the Israeli army overnight, but they rarely trouble most people's sleep.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, things are very different.

Nablus and Jenin all but shut down as night falls, bracing themselves for the regular army incursions and shootouts that come their way.

The Israeli settlement right in the centre of Hebron has given that city a tense and miserable edge, and Bethlehem is becoming increasingly suffocated by the concrete of the barrier Israel continues to build - it says, to protect itself from Palestinian suicide bombers.

Under sanctions, life in the Gaza Strip has almost come to a halt - and it's there that people most seem to resent Ramallah's attempts to block the conflict out of its mind.

Centenary fireworks

On a single day last month, in an angry Israeli reaction to the killing of three of its soldiers in earlier fighting, nearly 20 Palestinians were killed in military operations in Gaza, most of them civilians.

Arab TV channels had spent the day broadcasting the final footage of a cameraman killed by a tank shell, and pictures the bodies of five children blown apart in the shelling.

Palestinian folklore dancers in Ramallah
Ramallah streets witness activities seldom encountered elsewhere
That same night, Ramallah, was having a street party. A stage was set up, with dancers, music and fireworks. It was an event to mark the centenary of Ramallah being accorded city status - death wasn't going to get in the way.

Some Palestinians suggest this city is a product of an Israeli plot, to create a place for the foreign diplomats and journalists to visit, and wonder what all the occupation fuss is about.

But, in truth, if you're looking for it, the impact of that occupation is not too hard to find, even in Ramallah. There are three refugee camps around the city and the Torture Rehabilitation Centre here is overwhelmed with cases of those affected by their incarceration in Israel.

Israeli settlements loom on the rolling hills outside the city, and travelling to many of the villages surrounding the city, means going through Israeli military checkpoints.

Of course, when asked, people here will tell you of the injustice they feel about the wider conflict, and of their fears that it wouldn't take much for worse times to return.

But they'll also tell you they've simply had enough of the struggling. After so many years, the residents of Ramallah just seem to want to forget it and get on with living as best they can.

It really shouldn't come as a surprise. Those in Israel who can, do the same. And, if given the chance, so too would people living in Jenin, and Nablus and Gaza.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 31 May, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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