The old bus that took me to Birzeit College when I was a student traveled a road that had been paved by the British. It was a narrow meandering road that snaked unobtrusively through the hills, following their contours, straddling their sides. The views along both sides of the road were attractive, but the drive itself was bumpy and rattling, especially if you’d just consumed a large meal. The road was hardly wide enough for two vehicles. Impatient drivers often ended off the road, their car resting under some olive tree in the valley. The first slope you came to after leaving Ramallah had the worst blind corner. Once you had passed it safely and driven one mile downhill, you arrived at an intersection where a small dirt road led to the Mahraka, the abandoned garbage dump from which the smoke of dying embers could still be seen trickling up.
My student days at Birzeit College ended four years after the start of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Since then, what had been a junior college developed into a university with 5,000 students, and the traffic between it and Ramallah increased accordingly. Yet the road remained as it had been–narrow, winding and inadequate for the amount of traffic that it served.
It was after the Oslo Accords that the first change came to this seemingly immutable road. In defiance of their own government, which they feared might abandon them, and drawing upon the financial support of wealthy American Jews sympathetic to their cause, Israeli settlers built a road that traversed the old Birzeit-Ramallah road, starting from the settlement of Dolev on the high hills northwest of Ramallah. From the deeper reaches of the cultivated valley to the west of the Birzeit road, travelers could now see a new narrow road rearing its head, crossing the old road at the Mahraka to emerge at the eastern end of Ramallah by the settlement of Beit El.
I remember hearing at the time from the City Engineer at the Bireh Municipality that the City Council had filed an objection concerning the illegal manner in which this road was built on privately owned cultivated lands belonging to the residents of Ramallah and Bireh. This legal challenge was still being heard when the Palestinian Authority assumed power.
“When the PA took over, we handed the file over to them,” the engineer told me.
And? I asked.
“We learned that in one of the meetings at the highest level, [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin brought up the issue of this road and asked that the objections be dropped in return for granting some request that the PA had made of Israel.”
This was yet another illustration of the difference in the negotiating style between the two sides. Since 1983, the Israeli government has been preparing regional and road plans that would determine the allocation of space between Arabs and Jews in the occupied territories. The Oslo negotiations gave it the opportunity to consolidate its plans into political reality. While the Palestinian negotiators fastened on the micro-picture–How many of the PLO fighters in exile would be repatriated? What concessions would Israel be prepared to grant the new Palestinian Authority?–the Israelis pursued a clear project for maintaining overall control of the territories. As a part of this project, they insisted on retaining under their jurisdiction a milelong segment of the Birzeit road that intersected with the new settlement road.
Now that the Palestinian Authority had the money to improve the road between Ramallah and Birzeit University, it had to obtain the permission of the Israeli authorities to carry out road works in that milelong stretch under Israeli jurisdiction. All the other parts of the rehabilitated road were completed before such permission was granted. Drivers on this road would now drive over the new road, except for that small bit in the dip of the valley that fell in what was called Area C, a territory under full Israeli control, where Palestinians were banned from carring out road works.
In 1998, the long-awaited permission was finally granted, and work on the Israeli-controlled portion of the road could now take place. Large bulldozers were put to work to cut a straight road through the hill, a road that would avoid that hazardous blind turn right after you left Ramallah. Now you could drive straight from the road along the old British radio transmission station down to the intersection with the settlement road. The trip that used to take a drowsy, rattling half-hour now took ten minutes.
As it turned out, this road was as doomed as the Palestinian Authority itself. With the start of the second intifada, the Israelis reclaimed the part that fell under their jurisdiction. They brought their own bulldozers and dug up that part of the new road. By the juncture with the settlement road they placed a few jeeps that prevented even four-wheel-drive cars from driving over the bumpy, upturned asphalt. Pedestrians were picked up at random and harassed. Some were detained for hours or for the whole day, and prevented from getting to class or getting on with whatever business had made it necessary for them to cross the new frontier.
I remember participating in a protest march to reclaim the road and reconnect the town with the university. A Palestinian bulldozer headed the procession, flattening the scruffy road, and students sat down on it in large numbers. The usual scuffle of stones ensued, followed by shooting by the Israeli army. Still, the spectacle that beamed around the world of students and faculty trying to assert their right to drive to their university was impressive. The negative publicity that Israel attracted must have convinced the authorities there to give way. The Israelis removed their jeeps and allowed the PA to repair the damage Israel had caused to this part of the road. Once again, Palestinian cars resumed their travels along this twice rehabilitated road.
As the second intifada wore on, the terms of engagement changed. The Israeli army now followed a policy of minimizing contact with the population. They used helicopters to carry out “targeted assassinations” of Palestinian leaders, and tanks and armored personnel carriers to invade the centers of Palestinian towns. Day-to-day civilian affairs had already been transferred to the PA under the Oslo Accords, but these conditions made it more difficult for Palestinians to employ the tactics of nonviolent resistance to the occupation forces.
One day the travelers between Birzeit and Ramallah found that they could no longer drive their cars along the road. Israeli bulldozers had come in at night and dug out the part of the road by the Mahraka on both sides of the intersection with the settlement road. At both ends of this milelong section of the road, they placed barriers to prevent vehicular traffic. The trip to the university that had taken ten minutes by car now turned into an hourlong journey that precluded the use of personal cars, required the traveler to change public transport twice and walk for a mile along the dug-out segment of the road.
For the past five years I have given the occasional lecture to law students at Birzeit University. I used to leave my office half an hour before the time of my talk, get into my car and in ten minutes be at the university. Not anymore. From the crowded center of town I now had to take a shared taxi for the first part of the journey, which had only taken a few minutes. I soon realized that only yellow vehicles traveled this stretch of road. Private cars do not venture there. In a parade of yellow cabs, we drove along one of the highest hills in Ramallah and were let off halfway down the slope. The rolling hills stretched below us. The car that dropped us now searched for a place to turn in this blocked road, which had become a carpark for dropping and loading passengers traveling on the first short leg of the journey to and from Ramallah.
I walked up the earth barrier between two large cement blocks, followed by a sprightly pregnant woman who had ridden with me from Ramallah. Ahead, coming up from the valley, I could see a man with a belly as large as hers hobbling up the hill, sweat streaming down his swollen cheeks. There were about seventy of us in all, walking down the half-mile interruption in this eight-mile journey from Ramallah to Birzeit.
We walked in silence–students, faculty, merchants, shoppers with heavy bags, old women and men, some pushed on wheelchairs by volunteers from medical relief. There was something strange, almost timeless, about this stream of people walking down where the road had been, not angry, not complaining, as though paying penitence for crimes no one could identify. Just like the rest of our existence, our short trip to work has been slowed down into an interminable and agonizing “process,” interrupted, prevented from developing and catching up with the world around us.
It surprised me that I didn’t detect anger among my fellow walkers. There was only concentration on completing the task at hand, traversing that milelong walk. Perhaps they were sparing themselves for the drudgery of living. To get angry at every minute of our existence would be draining. We needed every ounce of energy, now that so many of the ordinary activities, such as driving to work, have become so exhausting and so fraught with danger. Despite everything, we are adamantly pushing ahead with our lives, trying to hold on to our daily routine as much as possible, pretending to lead normal lives in the midst of absolute abnormality. The only sign of anger had been scrawled on the rocks by the side of the road. In English some walkers had written: “Go Out From Palestine. Occupation Is Terror” and in Arabic: “We Shall Not Kneel. We Shall Resist.”
Before reaching the valley between the two hills I saw the Byzantine burial caves that had been exposed by the PA’s excavations for the new part of the road, eyes gaping from the wall of solid rock by the side of the road, peering at the living from the distant past. One was of several holes made for a large family; another only for two people, perhaps a husband and wife. I had seen these before as I drove down this road and had always wanted to stop and examine them but never seemed to have the time. Now I did. Leaving the asphalt, I scrambled down the side of the road and peered inside the holes. No remains could be seen of those who must one day have rested in them, only a long square hole dug deep into the limestone rock too dark to see the end of. I climbed back to the dug-out asphalt and rejoined the stream of reluctant walkers.
After dipping into the low point in the road at the intersection with the settler road we began our climb up the hill, another quarter of a mile to go. Along the side of the hill women were kneeling down picking cucumbers from plants, watered only by the precipitation of the morning mist that covers these hills before the march of walkers begins at sunrise. The runner plants had dark green healthy foliage piled up on the clumpy red soil, organic agriculture at its best.
Walking in silence, admiring the ancient peaceful hills on both side of our enforced trek in the middle of our working day, and smelling the stench of the fresh dung from the horses driving the carts decorated with red velvet tassels and filled with vegetables and university files, I could almost hear the rumble of traffic on the busy road just over the next hill, east of where we walked. As we ambled along our dirt track in the hot sun, the traffic of Jewish settlers who were resolutely building new lives on our land sped along the four-lane highways forbidden to Palestinians.