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Travel

I Opened a Hostel In Palestine and Ended Up Getting Thrown in Jail

When I went from working with NGOs to the private sector, a crazy business partner and some shady cops nearly derailed my business.
January 14, 2015, 7:56pm

A view of Ramallah, in the West Bank. Photo courtesy of the author

After a few years working for foreign aid NGOs in the Middle East and bouncing from country to country, I got disillusioned. I began to think that starting a small business that employed locals would be the best way to help people, so I quit my job and set out to open the first backpackers' hostel in Ramallah, in the West Bank.

It was a simple idea: I'd employ some Palestinians and help bring foreigners to an isolated place that's often mischaracterized as a miserable piece of the third world. Everyone would win.

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It took a year's worth of savings and 14 months just to find the right spot for the hostel and get it running. I called it Area D, and despite some initial hiccups—another hostel opened nearby a few months before and I had to fend off an extortion attempt—soon after opening we were packed with guests and making a profit.

But just when things were looking good, my business partner, Odeh,* a Palestinian friend I had taken on to help with translating and dealing with local matters went crazy and tried to take over my business.

Things gradually got weird between us; he wouldn't return my calls and would argue about small things; finally he ended up attacking me inside the hostel. That day, he told me that either I appoint him the new manager or he would make problems for me. Things escalated, he got violent, and I ended up macing him.

When the police showed up they let Odeh leave—at that point I realized that things were going to be a lot worse than just losing a friend and business partner.

I went to the police station thinking I was going to give a statement but next thing I knew, I was detained. Nobody was speaking to me in English and I didn't know what was going on. Luckily I contacted a friend of mine before they took my phone away. He showed up and told me that Odeh had gone to the hospital and told the police that I had been the one who attacked him. I was being charged with assault for defending myself.

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Worse still, Odeh was legally my partner and I had given him authority over everything in case the Israelis wouldn't allow me back into the country. In addition to stealing money from the hostel's bank accounts, Odeh had also gotten one of my employees to turn against me. So this guy quits and the two start spreading rumors online—that I was normalizing with Israelis, exploiting the local labor, stealing from guests, and so on and so on.

I had invested about $100,000 setting up my business at that point, and all of a sudden I was in what was becoming like a little war. I soon realized that Odeh was in touch with the people we were supposed to get permits from and was now telling them to deny the permits.

I ended up hiring a local manager and put him in charge so I could go home over the summer. The day before I left, the police came to the hostel to search the premises. They looked all around but didn't find anything. Then they asked to search my car.

I knew the police were there because of Odeh—he was obviously escalating things but I didn't know what he was up to. We went down to my car, they started searching, and suddenly one of the cops opened up his palm and showed me a bunch of hashish. Right then I knew I was screwed.

The police took me along with the car to the station. As soon as we got there a cop reached under it and pulls out a massive brick of hash. It was beyond fishy, an obvious setup. Then they got a call and went back to the hostel, which they searched again, and, surprise surprise, more hash appeared as if by magic.

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I was booked and moved to the central police station where they have some cells in the basement. It was one of the filthiest places I've ever seen. (Ironically, I had looked at Palestinian prisons before as part of my work with the NGOs.) In total they found 80 grams of hash worth around $1,000. It was enough to lock me up for up to three years. The next morning I was taken to court and told that I would be released, but I didn't have a lawyer.

There was only the prosecutor and he was speaking to me in Arabic and asking me to sign documents that I believe would have forced the hostel to close and who knows what else. I refused to sign anything and then got sent to the main prison near Ramallah. There was the whole process of getting checked in: a strip search, a medical exam, and mug shots. They stuck me in a cell with 15 people, in a space that was maybe four by 12 meters with a toilet in the corner.

All the prisoners were really nice to me, the typical Palestinian hospitality. They were offering me fruits and the food that they had. I didn't come with any supplies so someone lent me a towel and another guy lent me flip-flops. The cell was overcrowded—there were only 13 beds for the 15 of us—so they ended up giving me a bed instead of letting me sleep on the floor.

I spent a night there and then was checked out and brought to the courthouse with a bunch of other prisoners. It was waiting for our hearings—crammed into a tiny cell where the air was stale—when I really panicked. I started thinking about what would happen if I didn't get released. Someone had told me that the normal pre-trial detention period is 42 days.

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Luckily I was freed after speaking to the judge and I was out of the country within 48 hours.

As this was going on, the hostel wasn't doing any business thanks to the war in Gaza. But today the hostel is safe, backpackers are coming through again, and Odeh, under legal pressure, finally signed away his stake in the hostel.

I've been back twice now to attend three hearings over the assault and drug charges that I'm fighting. I'm pretty confident that I won't be found guilty. I'm going back because I'm innocent—I've never had so much a s a speeding ticket in my life—and I'm certainly not going to agree to have a felony conviction on my record in any county. I think it's an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority to prove that it is running a serious state with some degree of rule of law.

Today the hostel is still open for business. I see my story as a cautionary tale about trying to start a business in a foreign country but I think I got really unlucky choosing a business partner who turned out to be mentally disturbed. That's not going to happen to most people, hopefully.

*Name has been changed.

Follow Daniel Tepper on Twitter.