WHICH OF THESE WILL BE A DOCTOR? AND WHICH A SUICIDE BOMBER? in a Highly Personal Account, Writer Lauren Booth - Sister of Cherie Blair - Reports from the West Bank on the Palestinians' Struggle to Lead Normal Lives and the Harsh Choices They Face ...REVIEW

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Would you prefer red or white?' the waiter asks.

The men at my table debate it and I dip in and out of the conversation, but my French isn't really up to it.

Soon, a Cabernet Sauvignon is poured into long-stemmed glasses. We switch back to English to talk about centre-Left politics in Europe. It could be an evening with Blairite apparatchiks, circa 1997. Only the smart guys I'm with are members of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, not New Labour. And the chic restaurant we're at isn't in Westminster, it's in Ramallah, stronghold of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and arguably the world's most notorious town.

I've come to the Middle East with hope - but little expectation - of meeting the political players in the Palestinians' first democratic, party-based election, in which they will choose a successor to Arafat, who led his people for 40 years until his death in November.

More importantly, I want to see firsthand what it's like in the West Bank and Gaza. Since the start of the latest Intifada (uprising) against Israeli occupation, news footage has crystallised the image of Palestinians into specific types: urchins throwing stones at tanks; fatigue wearing, baby-killing extremists; women in traditional dress wailing over dead children; and Arabic men shouting in broken English. It's an image that has never fared well in the West.

But I want to go beyond those cliched images to find the Palestinian life that doesn't make the news.

At Tel Aviv airport I face tough questioning: who am I here to meet?

Where am I staying? Before I left London I was told that in the past two years, 85 Palestinian Authority guests have mysteriously 'lost' their luggage here after saying they were visiting the West Bank or Gaza.

Sure enough, my suitcase disappears, along with all the bags belonging to a group of guests of the Palestinian Women's Union. Their luggage materialises that evening.

Mine doesn't.

My taxi driver from the airport is Jamal, an Arab living in Jerusalem recommended by a businesswoman from Ramallah I've never met.

Everyone wants to be helpful to foreigners here. As one elderly man said: 'To take the time from your comfort to come here gives everyone hope they aren't forgotten.' Jamal takes me to the Kalandia checkpoint, which we need to cross to reach Ramallah. Thankfully, the Israeli government had reluctantly agreed with UN observers that while checkpoints would not be opened, passage through them - a time-consuming headache for Palestinians - would be eased for 72 hours to allow voters to travel to polling stations.

It takes us 'only' 40 minutes to inch to the front of the checkpoint queue where an Israeli teenager with a gun looks at my passport.

'UK?' he says, impressed. 'Yay!' He gives me the thumbs-up. We pass through and suddenly it's dark.

There's no dusk here - night just falls with a clang.

The road from Kalandia into Ramallah is the worst I've ever travelled on. We heave and lurch along the churned-up, crater-ridden concrete. Israeli tanks have done this ever since the 2000 incursion. I joke with Jamal that the first thing poll favourite Mahmoud Abbas should do if elected is fix the roads. Jamal sighs: 'This road comes under the Jerusalem municipality. If our authorities tried to fix it they'd force the workers away at gunpoint.'

Palestinians with heavy machinery drilling near Jewish settlements is considered a serious threat to security. Fair enough. So the Israeli authorities will get round to fixing it then? 'They won't fix it ever because Palestinians, not settlers, use it.' When Jamal tries to get home he isn't allowed back through the checkpoint, even in a car with Jerusalem plates. He has all the right paperwork but has to make a long detour to another checkpoint, where he is delayed for more than three hours.

Sunday, January 9, is election day. …