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Palestinian Roads: Cementing Statehood, or Israeli Annexation? | The Nation

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Palestinian Roads: Cementing Statehood, or Israeli Annexation?

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The authors thank Eli Clifton of Inter-Press Service for his help.

About the Author

Jesse Rosenfeld
Jesse Rosenfeld is a Canadian journalist based in the Middle East. He has published with The Nation, the Guardian, the...
Nadia Hijab
Nadia Hijab, director of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, is a writer, public speaker and media commentator.

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Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has staked his political credibility on securing a Palestinian state by 2011 in the entire West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, a program enthusiastically embraced by the international community. Ambitious PA plans include roads and other infrastructure across the West Bank, with funds provided by the United States, Europe and other donors.

Fayyad has argued that development will make the reality of a Palestinian state impossible to ignore. However, many of the new roads facilitate Israeli settlement expansion and pave the way for the seizure of main West Bank highways for exclusive Israeli use.

For decades Israel has carried out its own infrastructure projects in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. These include a segregated road network that, together with the separation wall Israel began building in 2002, divides Palestinian areas from each other while bringing the settlements--all of which are illegal under international law--closer to Israel.

Now, armed with information from United Nations sources and their own research, Palestinian nongovernmental organizations are raising the alarm. Their evidence spotlights the extent to which PA road-building is facilitating the Israeli goal of annexing vast areas of the West Bank--making a viable Palestinian state impossible.

Roads currently under construction in the Bethlehem governorate are a prime example, as they will complete the separation of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, which includes some of the earliest Israeli settlements, from the Palestinian West Bank, swallowing up more pieces of Bethlehem on the way. The PA is building these roads with funding from the US Agency for International Development and thus ultimately the US taxpayer.

Bethlehem Palestinians had not grasped the implications of the PA-USAID road construction until a meeting organized last month by Badil, the refugee rights group. Representatives of local councils, refugee camps, governorate offices and NGOs were shocked by the information presented, and are calling for a halt to road construction until risks are assessed.

It is unlikely that either the PA or USAID would wittingly advance Israeli annexation plans. Still, several factors conspire to help Israel take advantage of donor support to Palestinian development and sweep land away from under Palestinian feet. For example, it is impossible to build in most areas without Israel's say-so, and permission is usually given only when it suits Israel's plans.

As public works minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh defended the PA's road rehabilitation and construction: "All these efforts have improved Palestinian infrastructure and fit into the plans of the government," he said. But, he added, "this work needs a political frame to end the occupation." (Shtayyeh has since resigned his post.) As for USAID, it insists that the PA is responsible for project selection, while its role is limited to economic and technical assessment and funding.

But research by the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ), the respected Palestinian natural resources institute, reveals some damning facts: 32 percent of the PA roads funded and implemented by USAID neatly fall into a proposal the Israeli Civil Administration (aka the military occupation authority) presented to donors in 2004. Israel wanted donors to fund some 500 kilometers of alternative roads to serve the Palestinians it was blocking from the main road network (see animated slide here). The donors rejected the proposal at that time, but it now turns out that PA-USAID efforts have effectively implemented 22 percent of Israel's plan.

When it is pointed out that many of the alternative roads could facilitate settlement expansion, apartheid-style segregation and annexation by taking Palestinians off the main grid--thus working against a Palestinian state--Shtayyeh said, "We don't look at it this way. The Israelis are stopping people from using these roads, and our job is to find ways for people to survive. This doesn't mean these roads are permanent structures."

The Palestine Liberation Organization's Negotiation Support Unit carefully studied the perils of developing infrastructure under occupation after the International Court of Justice in 2004 reaffirmed the illegality of Israel's wall in the occupied West Bank. The NSU prepared a manual with guidance on how to build without becoming complicit in Israeli colonization. Asked whether the PA was aware of the role these roads would play in settler annexation, an NSU staffer, speaking anonymously as he was not authorized to speak to the media, told The Nation, "We have presented our position paper to the prime minister's office and Mohammad Shtayyeh, and they are well aware of the issue."

In a meeting with Badil and other local Palestinian NGOs, a senior official at the Palestinian public works ministry reportedly criticized some Palestinian municipalities for exacerbating the problem by dealing directly with donors, without concern for the national interest. He also targeted international aid agencies, reportedly saying that Western donors insist on accommodating the Israeli settlements. For example, he said, German donors enabled the Israeli settlement of Psagot to link into the Palestinian town of El-Bireh's sewage system despite PA objections. He added that USAID goes along with PA priorities "so long as Israel doesn't object."

Roads to Dispossession

The Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO facilitated the implementation of Israel's segregated road system. The PA, supposedly established for an "interim" five-year period in 1994, has control over Area A, some 17 percent of the West Bank. Israel and the PA share control over Area B, while Israel retains absolute control of Area C--around 60 percent of the West Bank. Not coincidentally, Areas A and B include some 96 percent of the Palestinian population, while Area C comprises the settlements and most of the agricultural land, including the fertile Jordan Valley. In addition, Israel has sole control over development in occupied East Jerusalem, which it annexed de facto in 1967.

Israel continues to cement these interim arrangements into permanence, with control of road construction being one of its major tools. USAID explains that "only" the roads located in Areas B and C (more than 80 percent of the West Bank) require coordination with Israeli officials. Roads located in Area B are forwarded to Israel's District Civil Liaison for security coordination, while roads located in Area C are submitted for "security coordination and construction permitting" so that the liaison can verify "compliance with existing master plans and confirmation of rights-of-way."

Badil director Ingrid Jaradat Gassner says that the PA receives fast-tracked permission from the Israeli Civil Administration for construction in area C that can be incorporated into Israel's road plans. She adds that not all roads are a problem, but the ones that don't link to main roads or act as substitutes for established routes are of serious concern.

After donors rejected its 2004 proposal for the alternative road network, Israel began building the roads anyway, later terming them "fabric of life" roads. "Apart from being racist, these roads are wasteful," said Sarit Michaeli, spokesperson for B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization. "The fabric-of-life roads are meant to solve a problem that in most cases was illegally imposed by Israel."

In mid-2009 the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that Israeli authorities had paved about forty-nine kilometers of alternative roads, including forty-three tunnels and underpasses, raising not just political but also environmental concerns about the impact of an additional road network on a small area like the West Bank. OCHA describes the fabric-of-life roads as one of the mechanisms to control Palestinian movement and facilitate that of Israeli settlers. B'Tselem estimates that Israel has spent some $44.5 million on the fabric-of-life road system--a small price to pay to seize vast tracts of land.

The Human Impact

Nidal Hatim, a local playwright, online columnist and activist with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), cannot take the main road from Bethlehem to his home village of Battir, just outside the city. Route 60 is the main highway running north-south through the center of the West Bank. "To go on the highway, we have to go through the checkpoint and turn around," he said. "I have a West Bank Palestinian ID, so I can't go through the checkpoint." Instead, he takes a bumpy side road that is currently being built by the PA with USAID support. The road turns from choppy cement to residential street to dirt and gravel path, weaving around and under the four-lane Route 60, which is now used mostly by Israeli settlers. Passing through a partly completed tunnel, the car stalls for a second on a steep unpaved incline on the edge of an olive grove.

According to a Battir council member Hassan Awaineh, the tunnel will become the only access point connecting the 22,000 residents of Battir and neighboring villages to Bethlehem.

B'Tselem's Michaeli affirms that the dual road system in the West Bank will "in the long run cement Israeli control. The tunnel that connects with Battir can be controlled by one army jeep."

The tunnel will enable Israel to fully integrate the Gush Etzion settlement bloc into Israel and separate it from the Palestinian population, a Western NGO worker explained. "Once the tunnel is completed, it's all over," she said, speaking anonymously because she is not authorized to speak to the media. Sitting on his porch in Battir overlooking the valley where the train connecting Jerusalem to Tel Aviv runs, Awaineh points to the now defunct Battir station, where trains used to stop during Ottoman and British rule. Since then, Battir has had nearly half its land confiscated by Israel, and Palestinian activity there is forbidden. Awaineh leans forward, the sun reflecting off his white hair, and sighs. "In the end they will make life difficult for students going to school, laborers going to work and farmers going to their fields," he says. "People will be forced to move to Bethlehem."

"This is part of Israel's policy to 'thin out' Palestinian areas," the NGO worker said. "It's not full-blown ethnic cleansing but rather incremental displacement, just as was done to the Palestinians who remained in Israel in 1948." What is happening to Battir and its neighbors in Area C has already happened in the Jerusalem-Ramallah area and elsewhere in the West Bank.

How It Works

A slide in a PowerPoint presentation produced by OCHA on new development in the Gush Etzion area graphically shows how PA-USAID-constructed roads connect with existing or planned Israeli bypass roads that push Palestinians off the main road network. The slide disappeared from the OCHA website after a presentation to donor organizations last month, but a copy has been obtained by The Nation. ARIJ has produced its own maps showing the impact of Gush Etzion development. The completion of the separation wall will sever Palestinian access to the section of Route 60 between Bethlehem and Hebron. Israel is increasingly pushing Palestinians off Route 60 and onto other roads like Road 356, part of which Israel has rehabilitated. Conveniently for Israel, the PA rehabilitated another segment of 356 with support from foreign donors, and a third segment is under rehabilitation by the PA with support from USAID.

"When you look at all things put together, it doesn't look like we'll be using Route 60 for very long," said Badil director Gassner in her Bethlehem office.

It gets worse. The rehabilitation of Road 356 has given several of the Jewish settlements in the Bethlehem governorate a new lease on life. ARIJ points out that the settlements of Teqoa and Noqdim had their travel time to Jerusalem slashed from forty-five minutes to fifteen, encouraging Israeli settlers to buy property in the bloc, where house prices have soared by 70 percent. By contrast, Palestinians who will be pushed off Route 60 onto Road 356 will see their travel time from Hebron to Bethlehem quadruple, to 100 minutes. And of course Israel has made Jerusalem increasingly off limits to West Bank Palestinians.

Community Outcry

There is no question that Palestinians need, and have a right to, a secure and functioning infrastructure and that the communities are crying out for it. It is also clear that Israel wields overwhelming power over the occupied Palestinian territories, putting many obstacles in the way of independent action. Moreover, communities are reliant on the PA's good graces for development support, which in turn is reliant on the funding of donors like USAID.

Nonetheless, those on the front lines are not accepting development at any price, and activists are demanding that road construction be halted until political risk assessments can be done. "No one wants to see the wrong roads built overnight," Gassner says.

"The people here need to resist," says Hatim, the playwright and activist. Walking around a Palestinian taxi stand in the setting sun and looking at the tunnel that now connects his village to Bethlehem as settler cars speed by overhead, he adds, "We also need to target the PA and USAID. People need to boycott USAID and its contractors. As long as the problem is Israel, the PA and USAID, we need to struggle on all three fronts."

Battir's Awaineh, who is close to the PA, is more guarded in his criticism and focuses on the Israeli role. Yet when pressed, he is clear on the need to resist the isolation and displacement of his community. "We must encourage people to stay here and survive. The PA and USAID need to build roads for the Palestinian people, not for settlers in the name of Palestinians."

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