x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Janet Mikhail is more than just the mayor of Ramallah

The mayor of Ramallah has broken down barriers to get where she is, and she has no intention of slowing down.

Mayor Janet Mikhail raises a flag with male community leaders to honour a school for its efforts in being environmentally friendly.
Mayor Janet Mikhail raises a flag with male community leaders to honour a school for its efforts in being environmentally friendly.

The stream of people in and out of Janet Mikhail's Ramallah office is endless. The mayor of what has become the administrative centre of the Palestinian Territories is unusual in almost every way - a woman, a Christian, unmarried and essentially chosen by Hamas.

"Ramallah is the bride of Palestine," says Mikhail, sitting at a massive wooden desk, signing pay cheques for the municipality's thousands of employees. Behind her is a shelf full of awards and plaques of recognition, below side-by-side photos of the late leader Yasser Arafat and the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Ramallah, meaning "heights of God" in Arabic, is nestled in the hills just 16km from Jerusalem. Historically, it was a quaint Christian village, frequented as a resort town because of its mild summer weather and stunning vistas. But with the creation of Israel came a massive influx of refugees, changing it drastically to an urban refugee camp.  After the capture and annexation of Jerusalem in 1967, the city began its transition to an administrative centre for Palestinians under Israeli control.

"They never let us have elections," Mikhail says of the Israelis. "So we waited for the Palestinian Authority to come."

After the 1993 Oslo Accords, Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) came to Ramallah from Tunis, bringing an entourage of PLO members, millions of dollars in aid money and increasing sovereignty in some parts of the Territories. Ramallah and most other West Bank urban centres were designated "A" areas, meaning, in theory, the city is under nearly full control of the Palestinian Authority - the governing body created by the Oslo Accords.

In 2005, the city held its first municipal elections in almost three decades. Mikhail ran as part of an independent list called Ramallah for All. The list won six council seats, while the Fatah-affiliated Watan list also won six, and Hamas' Change and Reform list won three. It was the decision of the Hamas list to back Mikhail over the Fatah candidate that brought her to power.

"I used to work as a school headmistress, so I am known by the citizens here. They encouraged me, and my family encouraged me, too - so I went for the elections," says Mikhail. She dismisses suggestions that her gender is an impediment to her work.

"It is the opposite," Mikhail, 66, says. "The Palestinian woman is a strong woman and she can lead in Palestine. In Ramallah especially, there are a lot of women who have the role of president or head of NGO [non-governmental organisation] associations."

There are five female ministers in the Palestinian cabinet, and women have long played a more active role in society than in many other countries in the region. Literacy rates for females are around 90 per cent - only slightly lower than the rate for males — and girls are now more likely to enrol in secondary school than boys in the Palestinian Territories.

Mikhail has different priorities than do other Palestinian politicians, which her head of office, Rana Stephan, chalks up to gender. "For example, she's really interested in issues of environment and health," he says, adding: "The mayor is always busy. She has too many invitations she refuses to turn down. We tell her: 'Miss Mayor, this affects your health, you have to take rest. You know your body needs it.' But she says: 'No, I need to be around everybody, I don't want anybody to be blaming me. I want to be equal with all the associations.' This has earned her respect."

Mikhail is from one of Ramallah's oldest families and has lived in the city all her life, except for two years studying in the US. She grew up here, with five brothers and three sisters, and still lives in the family's home.

During the last two decades, two intifadas turned much of the city into bombed-out shells, but skyscrapers now rise from the rocky hillsides beside lavish apartment blocks and upmarket restaurants. Mikhail has been charged with overseeing this growth.

"It's a challenge because the city is expanding very fast and the municipality can't keep up with services," she says.

Mikhail says she sees the city moving forward and believes it will continue to be an important cultural, economic and medical hub for Palestinians, but not the capital.

"We need to know that our eternal capital is Jerusalem. It's the political centre," she says.