My Unhappy Holiday with Lost Souls in Palestine

World War Three's kicking off in Ramallah, and I'm surrounded by Western war tourists.

Hello, I'm the Editor-in-Chief of VICE UK. I never get to write because I'm too busy walking around noisily criticising others. But, in an attempt to change that, here's Alex Miller's New Column. I asked Twitter to help me decide on a name and someone pointed out that this was a good one because it's a joke that only gets funny as it gets old.


I was sitting in a hotel in Palestine when I found out that Gaza was under fire. We gathered around two tellies; me in front of Sky News, the local government ministers who made up the rest of the room under Al Jazeera. “Oh great,” I thought. “You’ve had your whole life to come here and discover that the beer is great, but you choose to come the week World War Three started.” I had another beer; it was great.

An hour later and I’m sat there with a contact, Hassan. He’s nervous and angry. He’s angry because Israeli bombs are killing his countrymen and he’s nervous because of the local government ministers making up the rest of the room. This ridiculous five-star hotel sat in Ramallah is popular with the Palestinian Authority and their military friends, and the military don’t like Hassan, his revolutionary friends, the anti-PA graffiti they daub the city in, or the protests they organise against the armed PA police.

Hassan sits, six-foot of boiling political zeal, sipping a beer in the opulent fortress of his enemies. We sit with him, negotiating our way into illegal activist meetings and actions. Where will you pick us up? Whose faces can we film? Will they be armed? How many militia members will be there? If we get caught tagging Ramallah, how long will you go to jail for?

The hotel where I stayed in Ramallah

Slowly though, a short, blond man in a shit T-shirt moves from the bar into my peripheral vision. He comes closer, hovers and then sits on my sofa. He leans in:

"Alright dickheads. I just had the most epic wank."

The sentence hangs between us all for a moment, stinking up my aura of burning sincerity.

I put my hand on the interloper’s knee.

"Excuse me; we’re currently in a meeting."

"Oh god. Sorry," he says, and trots off to twat up some other conversation.

I’d met this epic wanker earlier in the day; apparently he works for a security service in London, but he looks more like a Take Me Out contestant than a spook. I’m not sure what he’s doing here, but he’s not alone. My trip to Palestine has collided with those of 100 other Westerners. Strange, lost Westerners who’ve found themselves in the middle of the East for no clear reason. I mean, who comes to Palestine to date, or go shopping, or dance to Euro DJ jingles? No one. You go to Palestine to get gassed and try to decipher the epicenter of global Islamic rage. And that’s it.

I, like these other people, have been brought on a junket for Palestinian Youth Week – a strange, imaginary event hosted by former members of the PLO. The idea – to cast a net across Western media, encouraging them to see another side of Palestine – isn’t a bad one, but fuck me, the net has been miscast. Aside from an Italian broadcaster, a Swedish journalist and an American photographer, most of these people here are 20-something tourists with less journalistic accreditation than a Sunday roast.

There are two archetypes, the silent Betas who sit in the hotel, worrying over the buffet as though they had gone to bed in Swiss Cottage and woken in Palestine. They’re counting the moments before they can leave. And then there are the Ramallah scenesters; those who’ve been here before and know how it all works. They are led by a small crew of Alpha women who seem to be here for the lulz and are fronted by a Queen bee called Sophie. Sophie carries herself with the confidence of an expensive leather boot, and generals and businessmen fawn over her. On her second night, Sophie is taken on a date by one of the richest men in Palestine. According to a third party: “It was magical.”

They’re kind of incredible, they’re fuelled by a social confidence which is unaffected by flaming tyres at checkpoints or air strikes; wherever they go is just The King’s Road by another name. As such, I get the feeling that the reason this hotel is teeming with confused sports journalists and “international observers” (foreign people without anything specific to do – like my Epic Wanker mate) is because of them. They’re basically Graham Greene characters: uncannily at peace with turning a disputed territory into a glamorous holiday destination for lost souls looking for professional validation holed-up in their five star vulgarrison.

Wednesday. Massive protests are planned across all of the West Bank. Parts of the corpse of Yasser Arafat have been exhumed to determine whether he was assassinated; the Palestinian Prime Minister has ignored American requests and applied for non-member observer status from the UN; and in the Gaza Strip, Israel and Hamas’ latest war is more deadly than ever. That morning we join a convoy of 30 vans speeding through the West Bank, shutting down motorways with roadblocks, getting gassed and having guns waved in our faces by the IDF. That day journalists from across the globe attend the weird, scary, gassy clashes across The West Bank. That night more violent protests kick off, this time against the PA at the checkpoint in Qalandiya. All this time, both Gaza and Tel Aviv are under fire. To me it feels like the centre of the world.

Poor, shy internationals. Busloads of them were driven to Jericho to see the conflict first-hand before insisting it turn around, but Sophie and friends wouldn’t even make it that far. They went shopping instead.

Which is a weird thing to do. But not nearly as weird as some other visitors I met in Palestine.

I was sitting in a bar on my last night drinking that great Palestinian beer. Twenty minutes beforehand, the PA’s security forces had pulled my producer aside and threatened to imprison him. In an hour, I was meeting a wanted revolutionary. But, at that moment, I was talking to the lead singer of Amazing Baby.

You don’t remember Amazing Baby? Yes you do. I certainly do, I spent much of 2007 championing them in the music press. They went to the same college as Vampire Weekend, I think, and they were gonna be the next MGMT. I interviewed them several times for the 'paper I was working for back then. They did a photo-shoot for me with 12 naked people in it. And now here the lead singer was. In Ramallah. Asking me how I was. Asking me how VICE was going. And in my confusion, I forgot to ask why he was there. And then he was gone.

Weird, right? The West Bank is the new Brooklyn... No wonder all those Israelis are so desperate to move there.

*Names have been changed, because let’s face it; this is both a really bitchy article and one that could land some people in prison.

Follow Alex on Twitter: @terriblesoup

Previously: How Britain's Paedophile Scandal Killed the 1960s

The film Alex was shooting in Palestine will be broadcast on VICE.com in December.