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Hussein Ibish

A narrow road to Palestinian freedom

A narrow road near the small West Bank village of Qarawat Bani Hassan is now the implausible epicenter of the Palestinian drive for freedom and independence. At first glance, the two-kilometer stretch is remote and of little practical significance, since it does not lead to any major hub and has no strategic value. But it is, quite literally, the frontline of the Palestinian state and institution-building program being led by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
 
The road’s significance comes from two crucial political facts. First, it is located in Area C, constituting 60 percent of the West Bank that the interim Oslo Accords, which were supposed to last for only five years between 1993 and 1998, designated to remain under full Israeli control. And second, the paving of the road was organized and paid for by the Palestinian Authority under the state-building rubric.
 
Consequently, and citing their alleged prerogatives in Area C, the Israeli authorities have destroyed the paved asphalt. Both Fayyad and local villagers have vowed to repave it time and again, and the Palestinian Authority has already allocated funds to do just that.
 
This road, in its own small, understated way is the first major practical embodiment of the long-term political and strategic logic of the Palestinian state and institution-building program, and a modest, quiet demonstration of how that that project inevitably leads to powerful challenges to the occupation.
 
The state-building program confronts Israel with a simple question about not only Areas A and B, but C as well: Is this land going to be part of the Palestinian state or is it part of Israel? If it is part of Israel, what’s the point of even discussing a two-state solution? But, if it is ultimately going to be part of a Palestinian state, how can that state ever be created if Palestinian infrastructure, development and institution-building are actively thwarted by the occupation? Who will create this state if not the Palestinians, and how can they if they are physically prevented from doing so by the Israeli military?
 
All of these questions lead to the most important one Israel has to ask itself, one on which there is no clarity or consensus whatsoever among Israeli leaders: What is their vision of the future in the occupied Palestinian territories? In other words, what do they intend to do with this land and the millions of stateless noncitizens who live there? What is it that Israel ultimately wants?
 
By channeling Palestinian energies into the mundane, workaday tasks of building state infrastructure and institutions, Fayyad is deliberately breaking from a well-established tradition of “heroic” and romantic Palestinian nationalism based on grand gestures and, even more typically, grand statements. There isn’t anything in the history of contemporary Palestinian nationalism that would have allowed us to predict that the act of paving a two-kilometer road in the middle of nowhere would actually become a potentially important moment, however understated, in the Palestinian struggle for freedom. But that’s exactly what has happened.
 
The state-building program, which has largely been welcomed by Israelis as long as it is restricted to constructive efforts and security cooperation in Area A, can only survive if it grows and expands. It does not allow for stasis. It was a matter of time before it began to creep into Area C and elsewhere, confronting Israelis with the difficult but unavoidable questions. As the quiet battle over this road demonstrates, Israel has a simple choice forced upon it by the state-building program: Either allow it to spread into Area C and continue to expand in every way, or interfere and, in effect, kill the entire project. If Israel chooses the latter, it will announce to the world and to itself that it never intended to allow a viable Palestinian state and must then explain to the world and itself precisely what its alternative is.
 
State-building efforts are also quietly at work in occupied East Jerusalem, with the Palestinian Authority renovating and re-inaugurating schools and other institutions. Israel has prevented Fayyad from going to ceremonies marking those efforts, but appears to be surprised to learn about what the Palestinian Authority was quietly doing to address Palestinian needs, even in Jerusalem.
 
Those who denounce the state-building effort and the Palestinian Authority’s activities generally as “collaboration” fail to understand the way in which that project inevitably leads to confrontations with the occupation that force moral and political clarity; or these critics oppose Palestinian statehood altogether in favor of a broader agenda.
 
However, as demonstrated by the “Freedom Road,” as Palestinians have now dubbed this little stretch of asphalt, built into the logic of the state-building program is what will increasingly become a series of quiet altercations with the occupation that will either lead, both practically and politically, to the creation of a Palestinian state, or force Israel to openly admit it will never allow any such thing to happen.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.ibishblog.com.