One of the first things you notice about Al Ram, as you walk towards the town from the Qalandia checkpoint in the Security Barrier, is the litter. Coming from an environmentally-conscious island where we try to re-use our shopping bags, where groups enthusiastically clean up the beaches to raise money for schools and charities, and where we tut disapprovingly at the cans and plastic bottles cast into the ditches by thoughtless drivers, it is a shock.
But Al Ram is poor, and cannot afford rubbish collections.* It is a town of 60,000 people situated just outside the Security Barrier and surrounded by it on three sides. I mentioned the Security Barrier, or Wall in my first posting (Jerusalem – First Impressions). In places this Barrier is just a fence (with barbed wire and military patrol roads alongside it). But around Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and here at Al Ram, it is most definitely a wall – 8 metres of grey concrete, with watch-towers at regular intervals.
Al Ram is just 8 km north of Jerusalem, but it could be 50 miles away. There used to be a gate in the Wall which allowed direct access to Jerusalem for Al Ram residents, but it was closed two years after the Wall was built, for “security reasons”. The Mayor, Ali Maslamani, told us that he had asked the Israeli authorities “100 times” for it to be opened again, but they refuse. So to get to Jerusalem one must pass through Qalandia checkpoint, the main access to Jerusalem for all northern West Bank towns including Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin. I will write more of checkpoints on another occasion. For now, let us just say that in spite of the constant shuttle bus service that operates between the Qalandia checkpoint and Jerusalem it can easily take one and a half hours to travel from Al Ram to the city centre.
But the difficulties in accessing Jerusalem are not the main reason for Al Ram’s poverty. According to the Executive Director of Al Ram Council, Mohanned Shaheen, 70% of Al Ram’s residents actually have Jerusalem IDs. Such IDs are a prized possession, entitling the holder to the facilities – hospitals, schools etc – in East Jerusalem. But the “permanent residency” status that goes with such an ID is always vulnerable. To keep it, you must show that the your “centre of life” is in Jerusalem, not Al Ram. So most Al Ram residents who have Jerusalem ID also maintain a home in Jerusalem, and indeed, in order to show the authorities that they live there, spend as much time there as they can. And with a Jerusalem home come Jerusalem taxes, 4 or 5 times the level of Al Ram taxes. By the time you have paid your Jerusalem taxes, and maintained two homes, and assuming that you have a job, there is not a lot left to pay Al Ram taxes. So Al Ram struggles. There is no police force. The Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot afford to provide one. “The PA is in a constant budgetary crisis and only manages to pay its civil servants and provide essential services with funding from foreign donors.” The mayor told us that the Israeli police are quick enough to enter the town and make raids on houses if they suspect a member of Hamas is there, but otherwise they take no interest whatsoever in the town. There is no money for repair and maintenance of the schools. A new community centre was opened in 2008, with support from Oman, with the intention of providing clinic and health services for those who cannot access Jerusalem, but there are no resources to offer more than the most basic first aid services. As Mohanned Shaheen told us “We are speaking about a city with no income”.
Yet there is pride and determination. Mohanned Shaheen told us of the town’s pride in its Mayor, Ali Maslamani, both for his work towards a Palestinian State and for his determination to attract investment and revive the fortunes of Al Ram.
What Al Ram needs most of all is an end to the occupation – what both the Mayor and Mohanned Shaheen call “the nightmare occupation”. What it also needs is investment. It needs European investment to make up the deficit caused by Israel’s restriction of funds to the Palestinian Authority. But it also needs the moral investment that comes with people-to-people links. Al Ram is twinned with Aulnay Sous-Bois and Bondy, two towns in the Paris area. Out of these twinning links came support to re-lay the disintegrating yard at the boys’ school. It seems a small thing, but now the boys can play football and games where before they could not. Al Ram would like many more such links. It is not just the money – it is the sense that people in Europe know that Al Ram exists and understands what it is suffering.
Al Ram may be a town cut off, but it is a town with pride and determination. “We are strong”, Mohanned Shaheen told us. “ We may not have money or planes, but we are strong in the heart.”
* Since posting this blog I have learnt more about the situation regarding rubbish disposal. It is not simply the case that Al Ram cannot afford rubbish collections. There are international donors ready and willing to fund rubbish and sewage disposal systems. But such facilities must be sited in Area C, away from the densely-populated Areas A & B. Area C is under the full control of the Israeli Civil Administration for all matters, both to do with planning and to do with security. And the Israeli CA will not give permission for any rubbish or sewage disposal facilities unless they also take rubbish and sewage from the Israeli settlements, which are illegal under International Humanitarian Law. For obvious reasons, international donors are not willing to agree to this. So the rubbish continues to pile up in Al Ram.
I am participating in a programme with [Quaker Peace and Social Witness QPSW] as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained herein are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of my sending organisation [QPSW] or the WCC. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact [Teresap@quaker.org.uk] or the EAPPI Communications Officer (email@example.com) for permission. Thank you.
For further information about EAPPI see www.eappi.org
 See “East Jerusalem: Key Humanitarian Concerns” UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, published March 2011, p13
 Under Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”
”Official: PA could be dismantled if talks fail” Ma’an News Agency 21/04/2014