DECEMBER 17, 2013
Image by Irene Nasser
LAST NIGHT, it snowed in Ramallah. No one here has snow tires, much less salt or sand or shovels — so we abandoned the car in a friend’s driveway and set out to walk across town. Four or five inches had already fallen, the snow coming down in wide, heavy flakes. The cypresses sagged. Fan palms drooped under its weight. Policemen stood in the main intersection outside the old city, the barrels of their Kalashnikovs protruding like erections from their ponchos. A taxi skidded around the corner, its wheels spinning. A few young men piled on top while others pushed it from behind, laughing as they slid and fell and ran. In the orangey glow of the streetlamps, the night was almost bright. Nearly everyone we passed was smiling, dazed, as if the city’s sudden transformation had transformed its population too, granting all of us a brief, ecstatic pause.
Then came the lights, blue flashing lights, a long string of them approaching from the direction of the Muqata, the walled presidential compound at the far end of the street. A bulldozer led the motorcade, and I thought at first that the lights were all attached to police cars, an emergency rescue brigade from the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas’s US–trained Presidential Guard dispatched on a mission to salt the streets, rescue freezing kitties, and shovel drifts from old ladies’ doors. When they came closer it became clear that only a few of the vehicles were the white Volkswagen Golfs used by the PA police. Behind them was a long line of American SUVs, black Suburbans and Expeditions, all with diplomatic plates. There were four in front, then a police car, then four more SUVs, or was it six? They stretched too far back; I couldn’t count.
When even low-level US State Department officials visit the West Bank, they are assigned a security detail of at least a couple of shiny black Suburbans to project imperial might and defend them from the restless natives. This, though, was no ordinary USAID-bureaucrat’s-date-with-a-deputy-minister motorcade, it dawned on me: John Kerry was in town, and in the cause of peace. Just a few days earlier, at home in Washington. Speaking at the Saban Center, the Secretary of State had enthused that the Israelis and Palestinians were closer to a deal than they had been in recent years, which may in fact be true, but doesn’t mean much. At the same forum, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, cautioned that no one should get their hopes up — but that even if, as he expected, the dialogue achieved nothing, it was important to keep it going in order “to manage this conflict.”
Writing on the website Mondoweiss, Allison Deger observed subtle shifts in Kerry’s rhetoric. He was no longer talking about Palestinian statehood but of building “effective state institutions,” in what sounded like an indefinite trial period: “Israel and Jordan must know that they will have a reliable and responsible neighbor,” and “It will take time to train, build, equip, and test Palestinian institutions to ensure that they’re capable of protecting Palestinian citizens.” The American team’s security proposal, developed in close consultation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leaked a few days ago, also suggested that the Kerry plan for peace did not include anything like Palestinian sovereignty, or even an end to the occupation: Israeli troops would remain in the Jordan Valley for as long as 10 years, Israel would maintain partial control over border crossings to Jordan, the demilitarization of the Palestinian security forces would be monitored by American drones.
Down on the street, Kerry wasn’t going anywhere. A silver Volkswagen was stuck in the snow, the entire motorcade stalled behind it. Not even the bulldozer could pass. A half-dozen men in the street labored — not without mirth and the occasional snowball — to push the car out of the way. A small crowd gathered. Word was getting around: “Americans.” And the Americans were getting impatient. The doors of the second SUV opened. Two tall, muscular men in business suits got out. “Come on,” one of them yelled in English with a wave of his hand, “Move it out of here.” They didn’t help push. They walked around and whispered into the cuffs of their jackets, then returned to the warmth of their vehicle.
Finally, the young men managed to push the Volkswagen to the side of the road. The bulldozer passed, and the first two SUVs, but the PA police car behind them was spinning its wheels, unable to move forward. Again the motorcade halted. Again the guys gathered to liberate the car from the snow. Some pushed. Others stood by laughing. Others pelted each other — and the car — with snowballs. A police officer emerged, yelling, grabbing and shaking one of the snowball throwers. The laughter only paused for a moment. The cop got back in the car. Fewer than half of the young men he had been threatening and berating returned to put their shoulders to his rear bumper. The rest stood by, enjoying the spectacle. The tires found traction. Slowly, the car drove off. The men waved the SUVs forward. “Come on, my cousins, move along,” one of them yelled, grinning broadly. “You are welcome, now go.”
The motorcade passed, SUV after SUV after SUV on their way back to Jerusalem. We turned the corner. The snow was falling steadily. The street was empty and almost silent. If I paused and tried not to breathe, I could hear the patter of the snowflakes landing, a dog barking somewhere blocks away, an engine racing in vain, kids yelling with glee — somewhere, out of sight, a snowball fight.