RAMALLAH, April 28 (JMCC) - Al-Walaja
village is a mere four km from Bethlehem
, and 8.5 km from Jerusalem
. Already cut off from the rest of the West Bank
by the Wall
Israel is constructing, the village will soon be surrounded completely by a cement and barbed-wire barrier, becoming a “seam zone enclave” because it lies in between Israel’s pre-1967 border and the route of the Wall.
The only connection between the village and the rest of the West Bank is now a single road, which connects to Beit Jala in Bethlehem. Access to Jerusalem is completely severed.
A similar situation has already occurred in Bir Nabala
, near Ramallah
. Once an unremarkable suburb just north of Jerusalem, the village is now famous for being surrounded on three sides by the Wall, and on the fourth by Road 443, currently reserved exclusively for Israeli use. Connected to Ramallah via what Israeli military officials call a “fabric of life” road, which tunnels underneath Road 443, Bir Nabala has become a ghost town.
Numerous fabric of life roads -- inferior routes that provide alternatives to main roads on which only Israelis can travel – have been in operation for years. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA
) reported in 2009
that there were already 40 tunnels and 39 km of repaved agricultural roads serving such a purpose, with another 18 tunnels and 45 km planned, including Bir Nabala.
Al-Walaja’s “fabric of life” road, however, is being financed by USAID, an independent federal government agency that receives overall foreign policy guidance from the US secretary of state. As part of its Infrastructure Needs program, it has already completed more than 230 km of road rehabilitation projects since 2000, and has a further 120 km of additional roads projects ongoing, costing a total of $160 million US taxpayer dollars to date (see map
Roughly 79 km of the roads funded by USAID have the majority of their route in Area C (areas of the West Bank under complete Israeli control), providing contiguity of transport between villages and towns disconnected by Israeli-only roads, the Wall, or Israeli settlements
. Many of these roads run parallel to or below roads known as Israeli-only roads, which, despite being in the occupied West Bank, are restricted to Palestinians.
In a report in July 2007, OCHA summarized the problem with Israeli-only roads as being twofold: “First, Palestinians are restricted from using roads between their key towns and communities. Second, the roads have become barriers for Palestinians wishing to cross them. They have, therefore, further fragmented the West Bank by creating isolated Palestinian enclaves.”
In August 2009, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem estimated that there were 284 km of restricted roads in the West Bank, 104 km of which there is a total ban on Palestinians using. While Israel’s courts have ordered Road 443 near Bir Nabala open to Palestinian traffic, the Washington Post
reported this week that Israeli officials plan to open to Palestinians only two access points guarded by checkpoints.
President Barack Obama has, several times, explicitly stated as part of US policy the need for a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory. At the moment, however, the only contiguous territory in the West Bank is Israeli-controlled area C, which accounts for roughly 60 percent of the West Bank.
There has long been a fear that Israeli officials plan to partition the north and south West Bank by extending Maale Adumin
, Israel’s largest settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and by closing off to Palestinians Road 1, which leads from Jerusalem, through Jericho
, to the Jordanian border.
USAID is currently proposing an alternative road system linking Jericho and Ramallah via Road 449, which would be rehabilitated for increased use. Roughly 16km of road north of Jericho connecting various small villages and the north of the city to this road are already under construction to this end.
The result is what OCHA terms, a “two-tier road network... [where] in practice, Palestinians are compelled to use... secondary and more circuitous roads that run between the Israeli road network.” This segregationist policy provides what Ariel Sharon
in his 2004 disengagement plan
called “contiguity of transportation” for Palestinians, but fails to make any progress in creating Palestinian territorial contiguity.
The problem, says Ingrid Jaradat Gassner, director of the BADIL Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, is that, “Whatever you do in order to facilitate movement for Palestinians runs the risk of becoming a potential substitute for what was there before.”
When asked if it felt that its road projects emphasized contiguity of transport over territorial contiguity, USAID replied, “[Our] funded roads are typically located throughout the West Bank, including areas A, B, and C. The Palestinian Authority initiates and leads the selection of the road projects USAID funds, and Israeli officials provide approval for roads located in Areas B and C.”
A Palestinian Authority
spokesperson says that the Jericho roadworks are being carried out to improve the quality of the infrastructure for Palestinian residents.
In a recent conference on the subject between USAID and the Ministry of Public Works and Housing
, Mohammed Shtayyeh
, the now-departed minister spoke of Palestinian road infrastructure being “not merely a technical matter... but also political,” and that one of the Palestinian Authority’s aims was “to challenge Israel’s de facto apartheid system by linking all of the West Bank with Jerusalem for Palestinians.”
Shtayyeh also made clear, however, that roads must be developed and repaired to serve the Palestinian community, citing the Ramallah-Jericho road in particular, and that he did not believe that alternative roads necessarily meant that Israel would close off the existing ones to Palestinians.
In 2004, Palestinians established an inter-ministerial committee to assess the individual merits of road projects, largely in response to Israel’s roads and tunnels plan. According to its criteria, the committee was supposed to reject proposals that serve the existence of the Wall, provide an alternative to existing roads, or form a basis for two separate road networks in the West Bank.
Since the 2006 elections, however, the committee has largely ceased to be active.
“There are no grounds whatsoever for any accusation that the Palestinian Authority is trying to work out a policy that adapts to Israeli settlements,” says government spokesperson Ghassan Khatib
“On the contrary, the Palestinian strategy is to make sure that we use roads that Israel builds for its settlements.”