Daily life in the Palestinian Territories varies widely, from city to city and even street to street. But whether it's the conservative Muslim district of Hebron or a Christian neighbourhood in free-wheeling Ramallah, the Palestinian street is an exciting place to be. Palestinian cities are typically defined by their packed pavements, bustling markets and traffic-snarled streets, while in the countryside, the pace of life among the rolling hills and olive groves is slower.
Values & Lifestyle
The ebb and flow of daily life in the Palestinian Territories depends largely on the security and economic situation. Gaza is in particularly dire straits as a result of the Israeli and Egyptian blockades, Egypt's sealing of hundreds of smuggling tunnels (2013–14) and Hamas' periodic confrontations with Israel.
In the West Bank, Israel has removed most internal checkpoints in recent years, making it easier for Palestinians to travel between home and work or school, but day-to-day life can be profoundly frustrating, and residents never know when they may find themselves in a humiliating – or at least time-wasting – confrontation with the Israeli security forces or settlers.
Despite everything, the Palestinians are determined to make the best of their tenuous situation. Family bonds are unbreakable and are often made stronger by intra-family business partnerships. Many extended families pool their income to build a large home so everyone can live under one roof, with separate units for each nuclear family. Palestinian men often spend their leisure time in the local coffeehouse, where old-timers play backgammon.
Life in Gaza is tightly controlled by the precepts of fundamentalist Islam but much of the West Bank retains a moderate outlook, and Ramallah in particular exhibits the trappings of modern Western living, including fancy cars, health clubs and late-night bars. Football and basketball are both popular sports, played by young Palestinians on makeshift fields and courts across the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinians are steadfastly attached to their land, especially their olive groves, and many urban Palestinians return to their home villages to help with the harvest in October and November.
Employment & Income
Palestinians still earn far less than Israelis (average annual income is just US$3200 in the Palestinian Territories, compared to US$36,190 in Israel), and the lack of economic opportunity, especially for young people, has done much to keep Palestinians frustrated with their lot. With unemployment rates of 27% in the West Bank and 42% in Gaza and one of the highest birth rates in the world (Muslim Palestinian women have an average of seven children each, as do ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in Israel), the average Palestinian home is both overcrowded and poor.
Palestinian women have traditionally played the role of home-based caregiver, but recent years have seen more women entering higher education and working outside the home. Except in fundamentalist areas, women have slowly made their mark on Palestinian politics – Ramallah, for instance, had a female mayor, Janet Michael, from 2005 to 2012, and Hannan Ashrawi is well known as an eloquent spokesperson for Palestinian rights.
The West Bank has a thriving art scene and cultural centres in the major cities often have both temporary and permanent exhibitions, featuring mostly local artists. Be sure to check out the Peace Center and the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, as well as the Khalil Sakakini Centre and the Yasser Arafat Museum in Ramallah. Street art by local and international artists (yes, including Banksy) appears on large swathes of the Palestinian side of the separation wall near Bethlehem.
The most widespread form of literary expression among Palestinians has long been poetry, whose leading voice remains Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008). His lyrical collections, dealing with loss and exile, include Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? (1995) and Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (2003). Prominent themes in the poetry of Tawfiq Ziad (Zayyad; 1929–94) include freedom, solidarity and Palestinians' connection with the land.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that narrative fiction appeared on the Palestinian literary scene. Emile Habibi (1922–96) – like Ziad, a Knesset member from the Israeli Community Party – was the author of seven novels, including Secret Life of Saeed the Pesoptimist (1974), a brilliant, tragicomic tale dealing with the difficulties facing Palestinians who became Israeli citizens after 1948.
The stunning debut work of Ghassan Kanafani (1936–72), Men in the Sun (1963), includes a novella and a collection of short stories that delve into the lives, hopes and shattered dreams of its Palestinian characters. In The Inheritance (2005), Nablus-born Sahar Khalifeh (b 1942) provides frequently chilling insights into the lives of Palestinian women, both in the Palestinian Territories and abroad.
In addition to catchy Arabic pop from Beirut and Cairo, visitors to the West Bank and Arab areas of Israel may come across traditional folk music featuring the sounds of the oud (a stringed instrument shaped like half a pear), the daf (tambourine) and the ney (flute).
For something completely different, check out the love ballads and nationalist hymns of Mohammed Assaf, a Gazan who won the second season of Arab Idol.
As for alternative music, the genre most closely associated with the Palestinian Territories is hip-hop, pioneered by Lod-based rappers DAM and later by artists such as Palestinian Rapperz (from Gaza) and Ramallah Underground. Shows in the West Bank are infrequent (they are more common in Israel) but an incredible experience if you are lucky enough to catch one.
Long an important expression of Palestinian national aspirations, Palestinian theatre has been censored by the British, suppressed and harassed by the Israelis, battered by conflict and closures and, most recently, targeted by Islamists.
Nevertheless, Palestinian actors and directors carry on. Juliano Mer-Khamis (1958–2011), the Palestinian-Israeli founder of Jenin’s Freedom Theatre, was murdered by masked gunmen in Jenin, but the theatre continues to function in the city's refugee camp to this day.
Cinema in the Palestinian Territories is hampered by a dearth of resources and film schools, a lack of funding and by threats from Islamists.
Most feature-length Palestinian movies are international co-productions. The first Palestinian film nominated for an Oscar was the controversial Paradise Now (2005), directed by Nazareth-born, Netherlands-based Hany Abu Assad, which puts a human face on Palestinian suicide bombers.
Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention (2002) tells the story of lovers from Jerusalem and Ramallah who have to negotiate checkpoints to arrange their clandestine meetings.
Omar, also by Hany Abu-Assad, is a political thriller about trust and betrayal, and garnered an Oscar nomination in 2014.
Sadly both of the West Bank's movie venues – the Al Kasaba Theater & Cinematheque in Ramallah and the internationally supported Cinema Jenin – had closed as of 2017, with the latter bulldozed to make way for a shopping mall.
The most popular Palestinian folk dance is a line dance called the dabke. One of the best Palestinian dance groups is El Funoun (www.el-funoun.org), based in Al Bireh in the West Bank.
Feature: Conflict Flicks
A host of powerful, award-winning documentaries by Palestinians and Israelis – in some cases working together – have emerged from the Israeli–Palestinian conflict:
- Arna’s Children (Juliano Mer-Khamis; 2003) About a children’s theatre group in Jenin.
- Death in Gaza (James Miller; 2004) A harrowing film about the lives of Palestinian children and the death of the director, shot by an IDF soldier during production.
- 5 Days (Yoav Shamir; 2005) Looks at the Israeli pull-out from Gaza in 2005.
- Precious Life (Shlomi Eldar; 2010) Examines the relationships formed during a Gaza baby’s medical treatment in Israel.
- Law in These Parts (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz; 2011) About Israel’s military legal system in the West Bank.
- 5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat; 2011) On the anti–Separation Fence protests at Bil’in.
- The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh; 2012) Based on interviews with six former heads of Israel's Shin Bet security service.
To take the edge off these tension-filled flicks, check out Ari Sandel’s zany West Bank Story (2005; www.westbankstory.com), a spoof of the musical West Side Story.
Feature: Banksy in the West Bank
Bristol artist Banksy’s connection with the Palestinian Territories dates back to 2005, when the secretive Briton stencilled his first work of art near the recently completed Separation Wall that has cut Bethlehem off from Jerusalem since the Second Intifada (2000–2005).
That year, Banksy produced nine pieces of work in the West Bank, including a dove wearing body armour with an olive branch in its teeth, an Israeli Defence Forces soldier being frisked by a young girl, and a girl rising to the top of the barrier with a bunch of balloons.
Banksy reported that he was threatened by an Israeli soldier and criticised by an elderly Palestinian man who said that it was wrong to make the wall beautiful with art.
In 2015, Banksy was smuggled into Gaza via illegal tunnels under the border with Egypt and stencilled a number of works in the strip, releasing a mock documentary that highlighted the destruction of the 2014 war via his website.
Two years later, Banksy opened the Walled Off Hotel, which had been under construction just a few metres from the Separation Barrier for 14 months. As well as his own artworks, it showcased local and international artists and sought to highlight the plight of the Palestinians.
Ever since Banksy first began working in the Palestinian Territories, news stories have claimed that some Palestinians have felt that his work belittles their struggle against the Israeli population, but on the ground in Bethlehem that viewpoint is difficult to find.
Most Palestinians feel that the Walled Off Hotel and Banksy’s work generally – most of which is still visible – has helped bring both attention and tourist dollars to Bethlehem, translating into more money for taxi drivers, restaurants and myriad guides that offer tours of his artworks.
Banksy, along with local and international artists, has also helped to spark a street-art scene in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the West Bank, ensuring that – if nothing else – Israel’s towering separation wall and its impact appears in tens of thousands of holiday snaps every year.
Every taxi driver in Bethlehem will clamour to drive you to the various Banksy works in the city, but for a more organised tour, ask either in the Walled Off Hotel or the Banksy Shop next door.