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Public space being abused - Sam Bahour

April 12, 2011 12:30 P.M. (Updated: April 14, 2011 9:54 A.M.)
By: Sam Bahour
"Store in a clean, dry and cool place" – Text from Coke, Sprite, Jericho Water, etc. labels

On Hippocrates Street in Ramallah, two blaring examples of the schizophrenic nature of Palestinian “development” are in full view for all to see, yet, sadly, few are moved to take action.

On one side of the street is Ramallah’s first five-star hotel, an economic landmark which has become an international story. In the shadow of the newly opened Movenpick Hotel rests a business that has become an expression of the inability of the Palestinian government in Ramallah to ensure public safety, maintain public space, secure the food chain and ensure safe roads.

The thousands of people—including many PA officials—who pass the intersection of Hippocrates Street and Lifta Street in hundreds of cars will know exactly what I’m speaking of. The intersection has become a key short-cut that many use to cross from Ramallah to Al-Bireh and vice versa.

The business in question is a distribution company which deals in consumer foods. I could actually list all the items they trade in. How do I know? Because this business uses the street, sidewalk, and adjacent open fields (where they also sometimes house a horse) as their warehouse and unloading and loading docks.

Acting in my capacity as a concerned citizen and private sector activist, I actually reached out to bring this hazardous eye-sore to the attention of those responsible for public well being. I approached two separate addresses, the Ramallah Municipality, which is the first line of governance in this case, and the National Beverage Company, which distributes Coca Cola products and is one of the main suppliers to this business and whose delivery trucks are the main contributor to traffic congestion at this corner. Regretfully, both of my attempts failed, and both entities completely disappointed anyone looking for serious governance or corporate responsibility. I actually gave them more than a year and only decided to write this letter after it was clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the relative authorities couldn’t care less.

So, I ask:

Dear Ramallah Municipality:

I’m witness that you actually tried, and your frustration was clear when you knew I was going to write about this and asked that I make known that the "municipality tried but couldn’t succeed" and you added that "the Governor knows."

Dear National Beverage Company:

I directly advised you multiple times about the ill-practice of dumping items which are supposed to be under a code of ethics, especially Coca Cola products, in the street and on the sidewalk where your customers store them for days outdoors, fully exposed to nature’s elements.

Yet, you continue, more than one year later, to dump as much of your products as possible with total disregard for how your product is stored and the health hazard that this poses. Do you not care that your Coca Cola and Jericho Water plastic bottles are being directly exposed to sunlight and are stored in open fields, next to horses, in 20 and 30 degree temperature and sometimes rain? Evidently you couldn’t care less—so much for multi-nationals setting an example for the local business community through their local partners.

Dear Ramallah/Al-Bireh governorate:

As noted above, the Ramallah Municipality has brought this issue to your attention. Why have you not taken action? This question is even more pressing given that from your offices you can look out of your window and see this entire mess from a bird’s eye, including the products lined up on the sidewalk, stored in open dirt fields, and the congested traffic as drivers work around delivery trucks while dodging the fleet of forklifts that freely use the street as their warehouse floor.

Dear Minister of National Economy:

Your Ministry pays salaries to a team that is housed in the Palestine Standards Institution. Are there no standards for product storage? You are also tasked with ensuring fair competition in the marketplace. Is it fair that real distributors must pay for warehouse space and this business can causally just use the street, sidewalk and nearby open fields?

Dear Minister of Transportation:

Your Ministry is within walking distance from the location in question. As a matter of fact, given the horrendous traffic situation in front of your Ministry, partly due to the presence of the Ministry, the side street in question is used even more. Does it not faze you that when you pass this intersection, traffic is being disrupted by a single commercial entity using the street? Is it not your responsibility to ensure safe roads and smooth traffic flow?

Dear Minister of Health:

In my observations for more than a year, your Ministry’s vehicles also pass this intersection, rather frequently in fact. Food products exposed and stored in direct sunlight and rain, on dirt fields and in the open air seem to be plenty to get your attention, yet this practice continues unabated. Why?

Dear Minister of Labor:

Work conditions fall within your domain. Does it make sense that workers are loading and unloading trucks while weaving between traffic to ride forklifts or walk? Does the Labor Law not have any safety stipulations that are enforceable?

Dear Minister of Local Government:

When a Municipality is not able to convince a business owner to comply with standing laws and when a Municipality reports such violations to the governorate and still no action is taken, isn’t this where your Ministry should get involved? Can a single business be more powerful than all government agencies?

Dear Minister of Interior:

You are responsible for the police. When such a business violates multiple laws every single day, why are they not being fined (assuming they are not) or even forced to stop operations?

Dear Director General of the General Petroleum Authority:

Your government unit is responsible for overseeing petroleum supply and distribution. Have you not noticed that this business has added a gas storage unit and pump on the sidewalk in front of the business? Did we not face a catastrophe only a few years ago when a gas station ‘accident’ took the lives of several innocent citizens, including a number of children? Have we forgotten how dangerous gas is that we allow any business to become a mini gas station, with no permit, no health or environment licensing or oversight?!

Dear Prime Minister:

As you take great pride in publicly reading your raving reviews from the World Bank about having created the institutional capacity for statehood, your citizenry is looking for something much more modest—a road that does not serve a dual purpose as a warehouse. And in a more general sense, citizens seek respect for public space and full application of the law by all those who abuse and misuse public space.

I use a single, extreme case here to make a point; however, hundreds of such cases may be found across Palestinian cities.

I can personally attest to the serious investment involved in setting up proper storage facilities that are clean, dry, and meet international standards. If we allow public space to be used for commercial purposes then we are sliding down a very slippery slope, one that does not contribute to institution building for statehood nor to building a society where all are under the same rule of law.

At least now, no one can say that they do not know. In the meantime, we wait!

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in Al-Bireh, near Ramallah
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