Securing the nightspots of Ramallah
RAMALLAH // Basem Sharawi is having a typically busy weekend. In between joking with would-be revellers at the popular Snowbar nightspot in Ramallah while politely but firmly telling them they cannot get in to the party raging below, the 28-year-old is constantly on his walkie-talkie to other members of his five-man security team.
"There's always a way to convince people. They won't always be happy, but they will eventually see things my way," Mr Sharawi said with a smile. Uniformed private security guards are increasingly common in Ramallah, where for years during the intifada, chaos would often spill over into the nightlife. Bars and restaurants would regularly find themselves a target for the wrath of gunmen, often politically associated with groups in Fatah, for a number of reasons.
Some would take unkindly to nightspots being open if Palestinians had been killed in clashes with Israeli troops. Usually such groups would warn proprietors to close for a day or two, something that was mostly complied with. More mundane reasons could also spark the anger of those wielding guns. Most nightspots follow a couples-only policy to manage the number of single men in any one place. Some took unkindly to being thus prevented from accessing a bar or restaurant of their choice. In one case in 2005, a group of eight gunmen broke into a bar from where two had been barred entrance, shot up the place, including the karaoke equipment of Hani Kashou, who was organising that night's party, and tried to set fire to the bar.
"Every day I remember that night," said Mr Kashou, who stopped organising his popular karaoke evenings for a long time after the incident. "The guys had a fight with the doorman, who wouldn't let them in, so they brought their friends and just attacked the place." Such incidents of vandalism are increasingly rare. Restaurants and bars still close in times of political turmoil, such as during the Israeli offensive on Gaza this year, but the more stable political climate has allowed for a more stable business climate, including for the entertainment sector.
"It now depends on proximity," said Peter Nasser, who runs Azure, an upmarket restaurant near the centre of Ramallah. "If it doesn't happen in Ramallah and isn't something very big, then it won't have an effect on the street. This is a shame, but on the other hand, eight or nine years since the beginning of the intifada, people are tired." Mr Nasser closed his restaurant three times in response to calls for general strikes because of political violence in the 18 months since he opened, but said there had been no such calls since Israel's war on Gaza.
Another reason is the more visible deployment and committed work of the Palestinian Authority police. The police, Mr Nasser said, are now "more attentive ? When you call them, they come at once". This contrasts with 2005 when, Mr Kashou said, in spite of a police station located on the next street to the venue in which his equipment was destroyed, it took police two hours to arrive at the scene. Nevertheless, there are still many people with guns and large parties or concerts, especially where alcohol is served, are particular flashpoints. Last year at Snowbar, an idyllic outdoor venue surrounded by trees and hugely popular during the summer with both foreigners and locals, one party ended in panic when two men got into a fight, pulled out their guns and started shooting in the air.
In response, Amin Marouf, Snowbar's proprietor, decided to get professional help. "I was fed up with having to worry about who got in and how they would behave, so I thought it best to hire a company to deal with this headache." Palsafe, the company that provides Snowbar with security for all its parties, is one of only two private security companies operating in the West Bank. The company has existed a little over four years and has grown steadily, now employing more than 400 people.
In the past months, said Raed Hamamreh, who is the company's chief of the security operations, Palsafe had been hired to provide security at a large concert in Jericho as well as at big and small venues in Ramallah. "There are more and more parties and concerts now, and I hope it continues, because people deserve to have a little fun," said Mr Hamamreh, who pinned his company's success on the training of his employees."
Mr Hamamreh, whose company takes on liability for the venues under their watch, said his company followed a strict no-violence rule. "We never have to use violence. We know how to talk people down. It's not always easy, but it is always possible." Their visibility is a key factor. The five guards at Snowbar were clearly identified in their dark shirts with the word 'security' emblazoned on the back. They are part of the reason Mr Kashou said he now feels safer and is back in business organising karaoke nights in Ramallah. They are part of the reason Mr Marouf said he had had no repeat of the troubles of last year.
"I usually know who the troublemakers are," said Mr Sharawi, taking a little break from his duties on Thursday night. "I know who to search [for weapons] and who simply not to let in. And they know who I am, that it's not personal and I am only doing my job. That makes it easier." firstname.lastname@example.org