One of the five main streets that branch out from the Manara Square in Ramallah is nicknamed the “Hisbeh Street,” or the Marketplace. Here, colorful umbrellas jut out from many carts mostly selling vegetables, with the cries of cart-sellers announcing the prices of their wares adding to the cacophony of the bustling city center.
On the sidewalks sit old men and women on stools, newspapers, or straw mats, farmers who came from villages all over the West Bank to sell their figs, lemons, sage or homemade za’tar. The women especially used to go to Jerusalem and sell their produce inside the old city or by Damascus Gate, but are unable to do so now since Jerusalem is only accessible to Palestinians in the West Bank via Israeli military issued permits.
A commonplace sight is finding other carts in the other main streets, selling an assortment of knickknacks, costume jewelry, clothes, shoes and socks, with buyers typically haggling over prices.
On Saturday, Feb. 2, Palestinian police stormed through the streets and attempted to remove the carts according to a new decision that the three municipalities of Ramallah, Al-Bireh, and Betunia agreed on.
Mousa Hadid, the mayor of the Ramallah Municipality, stated, "The campaign is aimed at maintaining the general appearance of the city of Ramallah, and to remove encroachments on the local streets and pavements to mitigate the traffic crisis." He affirmed that the municipality would find a suitable alternative for the cart-sellers.
Mohammed Jabareen, a cart seller, said that they knew of the decision beforehand, but were waiting for the alternative to materialize, as promised by the municipalities.
“The municipalities informed us that they would confiscate our carts on Jan. 15,” Jabareen said, “but that was postponed due to the bad weather. Then on Feb. 2 the Palestinian Authority police, acting on the orders of the PA and the Ramallah governorate, came and began forcibly removing the carts in a random fashion. Three quarters of the cart sellers are workers and they themselves do not own the carts. They immediately went to the Manara Square to protest, with one man pouring petrol over his body, about to burn himself.”
Posters held up displayed slogans such as “No salaries, no carts. God help us,” and “Where is justice for the people, Abbas and Fayyad?”
The Palestinian Authority, which is dependent on foreign aid to sustain its shaky economy is going through its worst financial crisis since its inception and disclosed a deficit of over $1 billion in the year 2012 alone. The PA has officially registered around 280 carts, which Jabareen points out that behind each cart a family is dependent on them as a source of living.
“We sell the exact same products, at least for clothes, as other stores do, but for way cheaper prices,” he explained. “At the end of a good day, a cart seller may make up to 600 shekels [about $160], and will only get 100 (less than $30) shekels to take home, as he has to hand over the rest to the suppliers. On a bad day, we make 50 shekels ($13).”
The director of media and public relations in Ramallah's police force Raed Abu Gharbieh said that the campaign is to "organize the streets and the markets and pavements, to make the city in a more appropriate civilized appearance," and confirmed that the campaign will go on despite objections.
“I own a cart and have been living off of it for the past two years and seven months, due to the economic crisis the country is going through,” said Mohammed Abed. “The municipalities’ decision is arbitrary. They want to cut off our livelihoods. I am married and have a young boy — how shall I provide for them?”
Abed suffers from ulcers in his kidneys and needs regular treatment at the hospital, which he can’t afford. He admitted that the tiny apartment he rents doesn’t have electricity a few days each month because it takes time for him to borrow money in order to pay the bills.
“I bought gasoline on credit today,” he despaired. “I volunteered to burn myself if the municipalities do not give us a solution.”
The fact that it was the self-immolation of a poor Tunisian cart-seller that catapulted the Arab revolutions at the end of 2010 seems to be lost on the PA government officials, who are concerned with synthetic appearances over the interests of the people they claim to represent.
Jabareen, Abed and other cart-sellers got to know each other more on that Saturday, and decided to form a representative committee dedicated to protesting daily. “Our movement is still ongoing, and we are committed to protesting every day in a peaceful manner, without hurting anyone from the municipalities,” Jabareen said.
“Our protests will only stop in two cases. Either they [municipalities] cancel the decision to remove our carts from the streets, or they give us a designated place to sell our products.”
On Wednesday, Feb. 6, the cart-sellers huddled in the rain outside the Ramallah Municipality waiting to hear the latest verdict from Mayor Hadid. Several tried going inside the building, but were promptly turned out. The day before, the al-Bireh Municipality also refused to receive them, using language that Jabareen says is not appropriate to mention to the media.
“The kindest thing they said to us was that we’re a bunch of cattle,” piped one cart-seller.
Jabareen explained how Hadid personally told them the day before that they will be given an official paper that will entitle them to set up their carts in the space around Manara Square, but were surprised to learn that the following day, no such paper was issued. Jabareen admitted that decisions and actions undertaken by the municipalities are influenced by outside interference.
“Any national act must be to strengthen and support the steadfastness of the people, especially in our current hard times,” he said. “The municipalities unfortunately follow certain foreign agendas. … It’s a matter of doing the bidding for whatever government can pay them the most. Who are they to decide how people should make their livelihoods? Whoever undertakes such a decision must provide an alternative.”
Eyad Daraghmeh, the deputy mayor of the Al-Bireh Municipality, stressed that alternatives were being discussed and will be implemented as soon as possible.
“The ground floor in the Hanini Kharaz building is one option,” he said, “since the building is in the middle of the city. Souk al-Harajah in the old city of Ramallah is another option.”
When asked whether the decision to remove the carts was discussed with the cart-sellers themselves, Daraghmeh maintained that the municipalities were only seeking to organize the streets better.
“Those who consider the carts as an uncivilized sight or an eyesore then I say to them that’s what gives Ramallah its beauty, it is the presence of the carts, especially since they are a familiar sight to everyone,” Jabareen expressed.
Linah Alsaafin is a writer and editor based in the West Bank.