USAID in Palestine: Building Roads to Cut Off the People

A young Palestinian protester runs away from Israeli soldiers during a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel in the village of Kafr Qaddum, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on 22 June 2012. (Photo: AFP – Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

So very far from the network of old roads present since before the British mandate — and far from the winding settler roads that cover close to 2 percent of the area of the West Bank — there, in the valleys and mountains of Palestine, USAID is building alternative roads that will become the main transportation network for Palestinians.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad marketed the new roads as part of his plan to establish a Palestinian state. He was proud that the roads would intersect areas B and J, which comprise 80 percent of the West Bank and touted them as “Palestinian” development projects.

However, critics such as Ingrid Jaradat Gassner, director of BADIL resource center for Palestinian refugees in Bethlehem, said that through the project, the PA was aiding in the ghettoization of its own people.

The roads project is the latest step in a series of attempts to dislocate Palestinians from their historical geography and separate them from the ever-growing settler communities in the West Bank. The walls, roads, and ghettos are an enactment of the Zionist colonial fantasy of completely removing the traces of Palestinian life from the landscape after having failed to remove the Palestinians themselves.

The new roads, which provide a separate means of transport for Palestinians in the area, conform to the larger colonial project while serving the interest of the PA to create a space of its own in the West Bank. They also conveniently remove Palestinians from the sight of the Zionist colonizers, strengthening the racial divides of an already segregated and unequal society.In establishing connections between spaces in Palestine, the roads also sever old connections, namely the connection between collective memory and geography in Palestine. Moving and operating in a shared space defined as Palestine has resulted in experiences, feelings, and memories that become fixed and tied to the land and nation.

National sentiment has been targeted by years of roadblocks, checkpoints, and conflict aimed at preventing Palestinians from moving freely on their land, disrupting the memories tied to the place and creating a conceptual gap between Palestinians of different cities and regions.

In the past decades, this memory has eroded, becoming more localized and narrow, so that little is left of the memory tied to geography and the geography tied to memory save some small fragments that vanish with the passing of time.

Today, it is normal to find that there are many people in Ramallah who have visited a number of European capitals but have never set foot in Hebron, a mere 50 km away. Many Palestinians reflect nostalgically on the period before the signing of the Oslo accords, when Haifa and Jaffa were just a stone’s throw away and the occupation was uniting Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and the land occupied in 1948. Moving and operating in this space kept the memory alive and full with the details of the Palestinian resistance.

Today, settlers have returned to the roads of the West Bank, sharing them with Palestinians in an illustration of the relative peace and stability that currently prevails. In many cases, they move about without guards and supervision and are not required to stop behind the stone mounts present at every stop out of fear of being trampled by Palestinians.

Yet, it is clear that this situation will not last, as any tension would put all those settlers in danger. Thus, this sharing of the settlement roads is temporary and will not continue. In this sense, the American roads are inevitable.

This new roads network is part of the “Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East” advocated by George W. Bush, specifically the aspect stressing the “territorial continuity” in any discussion of the Palestinian state. These alternate roads and networks of tunnels just for Palestinians (more than 48 tunnels and 34 barriers and checkpoints) ensure geographic continuity comfortable for Israel and the settlers.With the call for territorial continuity in the Palestinian state, the Rand corporation devised a plan in 2007 to build fast trains linking the major concentrations of Palestinian populations between Rafah and Jenin in the shape of an arc.

This project was promoted as setting a new example for peace. Alongside creating geographic continuity, the experience of moving in a fast train (90 minutes between the first and last stops) would produce a feeling that the passenger is in Palestine. On both sides of the train tracks Palestinians would build new communities.

In all of this discussion, the focus is on the sense of “a Palestinian state” as opposed to the idea of “Palestine” as defined by Palestinians. Irrespective of whether or not the plan is implemented or delayed, it blatantly expresses the nature of the American conception of Palestinian space and the colonial attempt to impose this conception upon the Palestinians. This conception remains bound by a commitment to place Israel and its security above all else.

The projects have also been poisoned by a consumerist nature — even the construction of roads — since they would require renovation every five years. In other words, real continuous development beyond the scope of Western development activities in the West Bank, and an infrastructure that meets the needs of Palestinians will never be installed.

Meanwhile, another goal of these projects is to disrupt Palestinian memory and collective consciousness. They are designed to foster a new conception of Palestine in the West Bank sanctioned by the PA and its financiers, where Palestine is reduced to the areas controlled by the PA through the use of school curricula and official language.

With the money of Western backers, the PA establishes police stations on what remains of the headquarters of military administration under the Israeli occupation and British mandate in utter disregard of the symbolic significance of these places within the Palestinian consciousness.

Sovereignty for the PA means establishing security in the cities and preventing any military operations against the Israeli occupation. Meanwhile, acts of aggression by settlers on Palestinians somehow do not constitute a violation of sovereignty.

The PA’s ministries and security services grow amidst talk of a Palestinian state, as if there were no occupation. Within this framework, the new roads are marketed as Palestinian roads, as they are empty and good for constructing a memory compatible with the PA’s projects.

Traveling on the road between Nablus and Jenin brings up many questions about this creation of distance between urban centers and the towns and villages. There are substantial differences in design between the extremely straight and accommodating settlement roads that resemble wide highways and the new narrow roads for Palestinians that wind through the valleys of the West Bank and along the slopes of mountains.One must doubt the seriousness of any talk of their being main roads for the prospective Palestinian state, not to mention the obvious fact that these roads are not at all suitable for heavy commercial traffic. Israel realizes full well that these roads are incapable of playing a role in building the Palestinian economy, which if it exists at all, must stop at every military checkpoint and is subject to myriad permits.

Throughout the years of the intifada, Palestinians developed the habit of asking any visitor from outside a given village or city about the condition of the roads. They would ask “is there anything on the roads?” or “How are the roads?” in reference to the numerous checkpoints and roadblocks that fill the streets and threaten all those who seek to pass.

Today, it is possible to respond to this question by saying that the “American roads” in the West Bank are lifeless. No martyr’s blood has fallen upon them, nor have they been traversed by fighters leaving for, and returning from, commando operations. They have not been ignited by protests, nor filled with the cries of the nation extending from the river to the sea.

They have not borne witnessed to the episodes of uprising against the occupation or the revolts against British imperialism. They have not contained anything resembling Palestinian life such as farmers going to their fields or children returning from school on the day of a strike singing patriotic chants.

On these roads, memory is cut off. Collective memories disappear to give way to those huge signs that fill the new roads with the ill-fated expression that has served as a signature of USAID projects: “A gift from the American people.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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