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Palestinian mayor presides over boom times in Ramallah

Overseeing the city's expansion is Mayor Janet Mikhail, elected as a Christian independent and one of the only female mayors in the male-dominated Palestinian territories. Her allies are Hamas.

December 25, 2010|By Maher Abukhater, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Ramallah, West Bank — The recent groundbreaking for a new Palestinian Authority presidential headquarters here in Ramallah underscored an unprecedented building and investment boom in the West Bank city. Land prices have tripled. International hotel chains are arriving. And master-planned housing projects are underway around town to accommodate a fast-rising population.

But not everyone is thrilled with Ramallah's growth. Some worry the city is becoming the Palestinians' de facto capital, overshadowing East Jerusalem, which most Palestinians hope to one day make the center of a new Palestinian state. And international donors have been cool to Ramallah's municipal government, a coalition that includes the political wing of Hamas, the militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip.

Overseeing Ramallah's expansion is Mayor Janet Mikhail, elected as a Christian independent and one of the only female mayors in the male-dominated Palestinian territories. After winning six seats on the 15-member City Council, her political slate made a fragile alliance with Islamist Hamas to form a majority against Fatah, the West Bank's dominant political party.

Mikhail, a former school principal, spoke with the Los Angeles Times about the future of the West Bank city.

Some say Ramallah's building boom is a sign that Ramallah may be the de facto Palestinian capital. Do they have a point?

Ramallah is the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority because the ministries are located here, and so are the Arab and foreign representative offices. It is also the center for economic activity. People come from the north and the south looking for work either in the public or private sectors. This influx of people leads to growth.... But it is not an alternative to Jerusalem.

What happens to Ramallah if Jerusalem becomes the Palestinian capital?

It is not necessary that all the institutions and offices leave Ramallah and go to Jerusalem if Jerusalem … becomes the capital of our country. Ramallah has always been part of the governorate of Jerusalem, which is our political capital.

There's a lot of construction between Ramallah and East Jerusalem, blurring the border between the two neighboring communities. Is it possible one day the whole area might be merged into a Palestinian capital?

Ramallah was part of the district of Jerusalem before 1967. It would take us just 10 minutes to reach Jerusalem. All the neighborhoods from Jerusalem to Ramallah were linked together. It will be an honor for us to be governed by Jerusalem once again.

Where are you getting the money for all this construction? How much is from the international community?

There are investors at home, and investors come from outside to do business in Ramallah. They are mainly Palestinian expatriates who have come here and started businesses and other projects.

What about international aid?

We do not get direct aid from international donors. The donors give money to a special fund for development of the municipalities in the Palestinian territories, and we apply to this fund for money for infrastructure projects.

Does the fact that you have a coalition with Hamas make it hard for you to get donor aid, which mainly comes from Western countries?

This does not affect the Palestinian Authority's support for us. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was more than generous in his support. But as for the donors, we do not get any support from USAID. There is clearly discrimination in this agency's support for municipalities. Aid has stopped since we were elected. I am actually an independent. I am also a Christian, which means I am not Hamas.

Has the Israeli occupation hindered Ramallah's growth?

The political situation today is certainly not encouraging to growth and economic development, particularly with the stalemate in the peace process. However, the Palestinian people have the right to live just like any other nation in this world. We should not just stay inside our homes … just because there is an occupation.

As Ramallah becomes the West Bank's first "big city," has there been a change in the social fabric or an increase in crime?

The change is very obvious in Ramallah these days. As more people come to Ramallah looking for jobs, we will see a rise in the number of unemployed living in the city, and therefore social problems will increase. But because Ramallah is the social, economic and culture center of Palestine, jobs will continue to be created and unemployment will remain low. In addition, our social and religious traditions and customs keep social problems and crime at a minimum.

Traditionally, Ramallah was designated as a Christian city, meaning the mayor must be Christian by law. Yet Christians have long been a declining minority. Should that be updated?

The fact that I am a Christian gives me a unique distinction. And the fact that I am the first female mayor in Palestine, and maybe in the entire Middle East, is also unique. This is proof of the liberal mind-set of the Palestinian people and particularly the people of Ramallah. I was elected by both men and women.

Since this city is traditionally Christian, the mayor should be Christian. This is what the Palestinian law says in order to protect minority rights.

Abukhater is a special correspondent.

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