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.