Visitors to ramallah these days are often struck by its boom-town appearance. There are large-scale construction projects underway, a proliferation of hotels and nightclubs, Mexican restaurants, luxury cars, cappuccino prices on par with London or Brooklyn—jarringly at odds with prevailing notions of Palestinian life under the shadow of Israeli occupation. Arafat’s hilltop compound, reduced to rubble by Israeli shelling and bulldozers in 2002, has been rebuilt at vast expense and now houses his pharaonic tomb. The city’s ‘diplomatic quarter’ of al-Masyoun boasts quasi-embassies from the oecd countries, as if it were the capital of a real nation-state, while international dance and theatre companies regularly perform at its state-of-the-art Culture Palace. For some, Ramallah is Palestine’s Green Zone, as isolated from the rest of the Occupied Territories as the notorious us headquarters in Baghdad. It represents an enclave cosmopolitanism, a ‘Bantustan sublime’.footnote1 The latest metaphor is the ‘bubble’, which manages to combine a sense of cultural insulation from post-Oslo realities with intimations of an over-blown credit system, ready to pop.

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There is some truth to these representations. But to the extent that they imply a structural separation between the city and its hinterland, they miss the point. The Ramallah that has emerged over the past twenty-five years or so is not an escape from the Occupation, but the outcome of its dynamic of uneven development and purposeful fragmentation. The changes that Ramallah has experienced since 1994—or 2000, or 2007—are representative of a wider set of phenomena in historic Palestine. As Ramallah grows, in specific directions, along narrowing paths, Palestinian life and possibility are diminished elsewhere. At the same time, the consolidation of people and possibilities in Ramallah makes it a bellwether for the direction in which Palestine is moving as a whole. The city has become the site for huge quantities of foreign investment, fixed in durable structures, institutions and physical spaces that impose new forms of control even as they crystallize new economic-class identities, with their own political logic. Its development is best grasped in this wider context.

Modern-day Ramallah sprawls across a southwest-facing flank of the low-lying West Bank mountain range, over-looking the outer suburbs of Jerusalem to its south. Bordered by the breeze-block slums of three refugee camps, it is also pincered between two large Israeli military bases, blocked to the south-west by the Separation Wall and ringed by dismal Palestinian villages, dispossessed of their fields and orchards for the benefit of a dozen or more expansion-bent Israeli settlements. Ramallah’s growth has swallowed up its neighbour, al-Bireh, though the two maintain separate municipal bodies. At 358,000, the Ramallah governorate’s population is three times that of East Jerusalem, though exceeded by Nablus (390,000) and Hebron (at 730,000, easily the biggest population centre in the West Bank).footnote2 But Ramallah is the main administrative centre for the Palestinian Authority (pa) and the principal hub for the international aid industry whose cash flows sustain an economy stunted by occupation. The transformation of a small provincial town into a seat of power and model for re-engineered forms of land tenure and class stratification says much about the dynamics of Israel–Palestine relations today.

Though its name is partially Aramaic in derivation—ram: ‘height’ or ‘elevation’—the site of present-day Ramallah was sparsely settled in ancient times; by contrast al-Bireh (‘well’ or ‘cistern’), barely half a mile to the east, had been inhabited since the Bronze Age. Ironically enough, the village of Ramallah enters the historical record in 1186 as Crusader collateral, offered by the Norman King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, in exchange for a loan from the powerful Order of St John, just a year before Saladin’s forces re-took the region. After dropping in and out of the land records during the Mamluk period, the village is recorded in the Ottoman census of 1554, having allegedly been settled by Yemenite Christians, the Haddadeen clan, fleeing a conflict with the local emir in al-Karak, east of the Jordan River.footnote3 Evidence from censuses and land registries suggests that Ramallah retained a clan character under the next three centuries of Ottoman rule, its economy organized around agriculture and small-scale production. This was boosted in the late 1850s and 60s by European missionaries, Quaker and Catholic, who opened rival schools there.

In December 1917, after Allenby’s defeat of the German-officered Ottoman forces in Palestine, Ramallah was occupied by British troops and incorporated, with French agreement, under uk administration, soon blessed by League of Nations mandate. The town’s new masters set about building up its hilltop compound, the Muqata, as a prison, court, torture centre and military headquarters. Ramallahites were employed by the British-run bureaucracy, which favoured Christian Palestinians over Muslims, helping to boost it over al-Bireh. Better-off families began emigrating to the United States, and remittances in the 1920s funded new building in the town, attracting workers and craftsmen.footnote4 By the mid-1940s it had attained a population of 6,000.footnote5 The inter-war period also saw Ramallah acquire its reputation as a tranquil and temperate spot to spend the summers, perhaps because ‘vacation’ was becoming a meaningful category for the new urban bourgeoisie. Yet economic tensions were growing. Late-Ottoman reforms had already introduced land-titling and marketization, allowing European Zionists access to the land market: land could be purchased, not just seized or settled. British economic policy during the Mandate favoured confessional development, encouraging a Zionist industrial sector that was allowed to discriminate in terms of hiring—excluding Arab labour and importing Jewish workers—and helping to create a Zionist ‘state within a state’ along the lines of the Balfour Declaration.footnote6 With rising costs of living, this put simultaneous downward pressure on Palestinian capital, landowners and proletarianized workers alike. When the Arab general strike of 1936 developed into a full-scale revolt, Ramallah joined the three-year uprising against British rule, put down by military force and false promises of Palestinian independence.footnote7

In 1948 it was the Zionist forces that declared independence, seizing coastal Palestine. With the agreement of London and Washington, the West Bank was occupied by Jordan under the Hashemite ruler they themselves had installed. Some twenty-five miles inland from the coast, Ramallah did not have high levels of Zionist land ownership and was comparatively sheltered from the fighting, insulated too by the strength of clan organization. Yet the Nakba touched all Palestinians in complicated ways. The formation of an exclusionary new Jewish urban space on the coast and in the Galilee displaced industry, labour markets and Palestinians of all classes into the West Bank. Israel froze Palestinian bank accounts and seized assets, as well as land, on a vast scale.footnote8 Much of the Palestinian intelligentsia from the cosmopolitan cities of the coast fled into exile. Many from Ramallah’s Christian families fled Palestine, and have played a central role in major diaspora organizations, especially in the us. Meanwhile thousands of refugees arrived in Ramallah from the coastal villages around Lydda, Ramla and Jaffa, fleeing the horrors of Ben Gurion’s ethnic cleansing. They settled initially in un-supplied tents to the south of the town (Qalandia), to the north (Jalazone) and on what was then still open land between Ramallah and al-Bireh (Amari). Later the unrwa replaced the tents with breeze-block housing, ready-built slums tacitly underwriting Israel’s policy of no return. In the early 1950s, refugees made up two-thirds of Ramallah’s now largely de-Christianized population of 13,500.footnote9 A decade later, the camps became recruiting grounds for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Rule from Amman between 1948 and 1967 was repressive but slapdash. Jordanian security forces now occupied the Muqata and Ramallah, on the border between northern and southern administrative districts of the West Bank, was used as an administrative and training centre—the Jordanians, somewhat intimidated by their unasked-for acquisition of vast swathes of Palestine, perhaps saw the town as a less threatening alternative to Jerusalem. Political parties were banned—according to Jordanian police records, Ramallah was a focal point for the Palestinian Communist Party—and loyalists promoted as mayors or local dignitaries.footnote10 The city’s most visible legacy of two decades of Jordanian rule was the famous circular statue of five lions, supposedly representing the five Haddadeen families from al-Karak, which still stands in the centre of Manara Square. Yet the region was not insulated from the Arab nationalist energies of the time. The 1960s also saw the development of a junior college in Birzeit, a village just a few miles north of Ramallah, which would eventually turn it into a university town. Prior to 1967, Birzeit attracted students from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon as well as Palestine. ‘In those days Birzeit College was bursting with dynamic energy’, recalled a student from Ramallah who attended in the early 60s: