Amira Hass / What West Bank road renovations say about the occupation
Why driving uphill in West Bank cities brings to mind Fatah's next general conference.
Whenever I am driving uphill, I nearly always think of Abu Mazen, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. To be more precise, of two sentences he uttered during the sixth Fatah conference a year ago.
He did not know his speech was being broadcast live on television, and until he was informed of this, he spoke openly, as is natural in a closed party conference. The leader of Fatah, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization lavishly praised his government's accomplishments. He spoke proudly, as if he were the head of a regional council, about enforcing traffic laws that require drivers to buckle their seat belts, and said, if my memory does not deceive me, that drivers no longer spit out their windows.
Then someone leaned over and whispered that the speech was being televised live. Good going about the seat belts, I thought to myself, but what about giving the right of way to cars driving uphill on steep, narrow roads, and what about not passing on the right at 98 kph on city streets? Apparently we'll have to wait for the seventh Fatah conference (God willing, it won't take another 18 years ) for Palestinian drivers to respect the traffic laws that are meant to reduce dangers on the road.
And so I am the first to welcome the following statistics: The Palestinian Authority paved 16 new roads in the West Bank over the past year, and completed 40 upgrades of existing roads. At least now, when I brake on a steep hill so that His Excellency driving in the opposite direction can glide down in delight, my wheels won't get stuck in some rut carved in the crumbling asphalt by the last rain.
These statistics were included in a press release issued last week by the West Bank government's media center on the first anniversary of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's two-year plan to bolster state institutions. The press release included a summary of the year's accomplishments, including the abovementioned roads, 34 new schools and 23 expanded schools, 11 new clinics and 30 expanded ones, and 370,000 trees planted to make Palestine greener.
The report indirectly converses with both supporters and opponents of Fayyad's politics. Its authors reminded the foreigners who praised the accomplishments that they were achieved despite the Israeli occupation: The IDF and settlers uproot and we plant, Israel destroys houses in Jerusalem and Area C, and we build and assist the population. "Without the removal of Israeli restrictions on movement and access, further accomplishments will not be possible. Significant economic progress under occupation is impossible," the report read.
A response to critics appears in hints in the section on roads. The report's summary says: "In order to deal with Israeli control of Area C, the Palestinian Authority supported a number of enterprises to increase access to occupied Palestinian lands. Sixteen new roads were paved at a cost of $45 million, and 40 roads were upgraded at a cost of $12.9 million. These projects, in addition to their importance in increasing access, contribute to economic growth, the creation of jobs and job opportunities - and also continue to challenge the Israeli attempt to turn the West Bank into separate cantons."
Is this really a challenge to Israeli intentions? The improved roads in Areas A and B do shorten the time it takes to travel between various cities and towns, and create an illusion of geographic closeness. But people gradually forget that most of these improved roads are meant only to connect villages, and their asphalt cannot withstand the heavy load of traffic between Palestinian cities. Without wanting to, they forget that what's on the other side of these roads is out of bounds for them.
Not only the notorious Route 443, but all the other roads that Israel has paved as highways, in a massive expropriation of Palestinian lands, serve mainly or even solely the transportation-settlement needs of Israelis (Jews, by and large, by virtue of being identified with settlements ). In 2004, the (Israeli ) National Security Council revealed its plan to create two separate road infrastructures in the West Bank (a directly logical extension of the bypass roads of the 1980s and 1990s ). Representatives of donor countries and the World Bank were stunned by Israel's chuzpah: It requested that donors fund part of the project. Slick talk about "the desire to insure the fabric of Palestinian life with transportation contiguity" did not confuse them. They understood that this was another way to create facts on the ground. In complete agreement with the PA, they refused.
And so Israel funded the paving of a few bypass roads and tunnels for Palestinians only, meant to compensate them for the detour from the highways in Area C and the giant continuous expanses that gradually became "Palestinian-free."
The roads that the Palestinians pave and improve (mainly with the help of USAID ) are in the category of "Palestinian transportation contiguity," which is opposed to the principle of "Palestinian territorial contiguity." A lacework of roads and tunnels connects isolated Palestinian communities. It enables Area C (62 percent of the West Bank ) to remain an exclusive domain for settlement expansion and link it to Israel, increasing the illusion of Palestinian sovereignty over the remainder.
Fayyad and others in his government are no doubt aware of the paradox. I hear them asking in response: Is the solution to leave the dangerous, shaky and pitted roads as they are, and not pave new ones? Of course not.
But at least let's admit: The new and renewed roads do not challenge Israeli plans; in fact they suit them well and strengthen their inner logic.
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