The five-star Movenpick hotel in Ramallah brought in the New Year in elegant style. With tickets priced at 550 NIS (approximately $144 USD) and a guest list boasting many of the West Bank city’s top businessmen and government officials, the soiree was one of the most sought after celebrations in town.
Starting at 8:30 p.m., guests enjoyed cocktails as a jazz band played in the background. At 10, they made their way downstairs for a sit-down meal, including a third-course choice from one of four cooking stations—Italian, Chinese, seafood and a sushi bar. The meal was followed by an elaborate dessert buffet and live performances from a band, a singer and a deejay. The scene could have been an upscale hotel anywhere in the world.
But it is just this sense of normalcy that is fueling resentment among some Palestinian youth and activists.
Just a few miles away, in the newly renamed Yasir Arafat Square, where thousands of Palestinians watched President Mahmoud Abbas's speech to the United Nations in September, hundreds of young people gathered for a concert to "Keep the New Year Palestinian." The concert was organized in response to news that a Ramallah club had slated the Israeli Druze singer Sharif to perform at the night’s celebration. Sharif, who sings in Hebrew and has performed before Israeli soldiers, has sought to simultaneously embrace both elements of his Israeli-Arab identity.
As midnight grew closer, protest organizers took the stage to launch "a cry of youth in the face of all projects aimed to undermine the prestige of our people, especially abhorrent projects of normalization." The crowd in the square, almost exclusively males but sprinkled with a handful of veiled women, threw their hands in the air and waved Palestinian flags. Speakers called for 2012 to be a year of Palestinian revolution and unity, a reference to the unrealized Fatah-Hamas deal signed last May.
But it is not just youth from more conservative backgrounds that object to normalization. Blocks away from the Movenpick celebration, another group rang in the New Year at Beit Aneeseh, a new lounge and favorite spot of local activists and younger-generation elites. In a room adorned with vintage PLO posters, the young professionals danced to the rhythm of Toot Ard, a group from a Druze village in the Golan Heights that weaves classical Arabic motifs into funky reggae grooves.
Unlike Sharif, the members of Toot Ard have not embraced the Israeli part of their identity. The group sings only in Arabic, says they are from the "Occupied Golan Heights," and is fond of saying that, though their Laissez Passer documents say they are “Undefined,” they “are sure they are 70 percent water and that music will lead them.” Commonly found at protest concerts, Toot Ard sings songs like “Jenna” that detail the political complexities that their generation was born into.
Above the bar at Beit Aneeseh, a sign poses the question: "Is Ramallah the Capital?"—part of a campaign by a group called Ramallah Syndrome to remind those enjoying the city's nightlife that the "five-star occupation" in Ramallah does not represent an achievement of the Palestinian national project. According to the group, the symptoms of Ramallah Syndrome include a kind of "hallucination of normality," the "fantasy of a co-existence of occupation and freedom," and an illusion that the occupation can end without resistance.
The answers scribbled onto the sign reflect the sentiments of the Beit Aneeseh clientele: "Do we even have a country yet?" "What is a capital?" "Jerusalem is our eternal center" and "Rebel!"
Though the revolutionary fervor of the downtown concert had not made its way to Beit Aneeseh, it is clear that the offspring of the Palestinian elite do not share the political convictions of their parents' generation. Taking breaks between dances, some discuss what the New Year might have in store for Palestine. Many argue that a "one-state solution" is the only realistic option for Palestinians and believe they must "claim their rights in the state they are currently living in—Israel."
The generational gap further complicates the complex picture of economic and political uncertainty facing Palestinians in 2012. The much-ballyhooed economic boom that the West Bank has experienced since 2008 has slowed for the first time in three years. With Western donor aid down and a freeze in US assistance, the future of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's development initiative is uncertain. The unsuccessful bid at the United Nations and the deadlock over settlement construction have undermined Fayyad's effort to build a state to put pressure on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and it is unclear what will come of renewed talk of elections and a unity government. The view of the New Year from Ramallah appears as uncertain as ever. And as youth revolutions continue to rock the region, the question hanging in the air is what will this Palestinian generation do if and when the current economic and political efforts run their course.
Meanwhile, back in Beit Aneeseh, the crowd sways to the rhythm of "Wein il Naas," Toot Ard's new hit song. The young people join in the chorus: Wein il naas, wein il naas yareedoon il salaam? "Where are the people, where are the people who want peace?"