West Bank town busy building its future Ramallah looks forward to being administrative center for Palestinians

September 27, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- They burned tires in Nablus and fought in Hebron streets, but this town has been quietly preparing for Palestinian autonomy by building.

A construction boom is turning the bygone summer resort into the economic and administrative center for Palestinians, eight miles up the road from Jerusalem.

"This will be the most important city in the West Bank. It will be the center of the Palestinian Authority for the next five or 10 rTC years," said Ramallah resident Marwan Barguthi, a top official of the ruling Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

He predicted that Yasser Arafat, the PLO chief, will move to Ramallah as Palestinian autonomy expands to the West Bank under the plan reached by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators Sunday.

The plan is to be signed in Washington tomorrow. Under the agreement, Ramallah is one of six Palestinian cities from which the Israelis will withdraw completely in six months.

Many have lost money predicting the moves of the unpredictable Mr. Arafat, currently ensconced in beachfront headquarters in Gaza. But many of the offices of the Palestinian bureaucracy are opening in Ramallah.

The signs along the street tell the story: PECDAR, PIDCO -- both Palestinian economic offices -- and the ministries of information, culture and education are represented. The Palestinian Broadcast Authority has its studio on the outskirts of town, already broadcasting two hours of Palestinian television each day.

Many other offices are inconspicuous, waiting for the formal withdrawal of Israelis before hanging their shingles. At least a half-dozen Arab world banks have opened here, more even than in the much-larger trading center of Nablus. Private businesses -- many from Jerusalem -- have moved into new storefronts.

"Everyone is anxious to have a business in Ramallah, buildings in Ramallah, trade in Ramallah, industry in Ramallah," said the mayor, Khalil Mousa Khalil. "When the people saw the peace process happening, they got enthusiastic."

The results of the flush of enthusiasm that followed the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in September 1993 are visible on Ramallah's skyline.

In all directions, there are tall new buildings going up for commercial offices. On the city's outskirts are apartment buildings and expensive villas under construction.

Investors are making political and geographical calculations by building in Ramallah. The city of 35,000 is midway between the northern and southern populations of the West Bank. And it is so close it is "almost Jerusalem."

Few will say so, but the boom in Ramallah is tacit acknowledgment that the Israelis will never permit a Palestinian capital in Arab East Jerusalem when the status of Jerusalem comes up in final negotiations next year.

Ramallah is a pleasant consolation prize. Because of its elevation -- at 2,920 feet it is higher than the famed mountains of Jerusalem -- the town historically was a cool summertime resort for the well-heeled of the Middle East.

Arabs from the hot Persian Gulf states built fancy summer homes here on the tree-lined Ramallah neighborhoods. Restaurants and sidewalk cafes were filled late in the evenings. Ramallah winked with liberalism. It was a mostly Christian city, where women wore Western dresses and shunned Muslim head scarves.

"We used to have eight hotels here. Now there is one, with 12 beds," said Mayor Khalil.

The summer tourism stopped after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 War. Ramallah stagnated as the firestorms of the intifada demonstrations against Israeli occupation raged in West Bank streets.

But Ramallah's natural attractions remain; one still finds elegant, shady neighborhoods, perfumed with the mountain smell of pines.

The reawakening of Ramallah after the peace accord came with a cost. Many elegant old Arab buildings are being torn down for squarish skyscrapers. The city has a height limitation of six floors, but Mayor Khalil said builders simply ignore the regulations.

He said the Israelis who held power for 28 years of occupation had no desire to enforce the code.

Much of the money for the surge in investment and construction will be coming from the United States. There are more Ramallah citizens now in the United States than there are in Ramallah itself -- the result of a long trail of emigration that began with draft-dodgers from the Ottoman Army.

"The Ramallah people live in America and then come back with their money to Ramallah," said Basem Khoury, who is opening a Ramallah branch of his "Kit Kat" Jerusalem grocery store that caters to Western tastes.

"People who have lived in the States know about pancake mix and cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving, enough for my business," he said.

Those are people like Nassif Musleh, 57, who has run a restaurant on Haight Street in San Francisco for 15 years, and now is spending $200,000 to $300,000 to construct an office building in his hometown of Ramallah.

"It's a lot of money to risk," he acknowledged. "But if this peace works, it will be worth it."

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