Israel seems to have gotten the message that Palestinian land, in any final resolution to the conflict, cannot simply be divided into isolated cantons. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon still intends to hold onto large chunks of the West Bank. How can Israel link Palestinian enclaves and dampen criticism of its closure policy while maintaining its hold on the Occupied Territories?
Israel’s Civil Administration has hit upon the novel concept of “transportational contiguity.” In an October 2004 presentation to key donor representatives, Ilan Paz, head of the Civil Administration, invited the international community to build a series of “alternative roads” to connect Palestinian areas. (“Alternative roads” should not be confused with “bypass roads,” which allow Israeli settlers to circumnavigate Palestinian cities.) Donors received the proposals with polite skepticism. Eyes rolled when Paz, in response to the question of whether restrictions on existing roads make the new roads necessary, claimed that only one stretch of road in the West Bank is off limits to Palestinians. Everyone in the room knew perfectly well what the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem had recently documented: that Palestinians face substantial impediments to travel on more than 435 miles of roads. According to one participant, donors rejected the proposal for “an apartheid road system” out of hand. Another commented, “Great. Instead of getting two states next to each other, we’ll get one state on top of the other.”
The proposal confirmed that Israel sought to construct a parallel network of roads and underpasses in the West Bank to preclude contact between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli army, however, was not willing to disclose all the details. When donors agreed to study the proposal and requested the maps that accompanied the presentation, the Israeli delegation balked. The materials were eventually released a month later, but included only a fraction of the numerous maps at the meeting.
If Paz’s presentation was a trial balloon, it was ill-timed. Israel attempted to ride roughshod over budding contacts between donors and the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Planning just as the ministry was rebuilding its capacity. The Israeli strategy backfired, driving donors toward tighter coordination with the PA. USAID was particularly embarrassed to find that it had been asked to fund 27 out of the 30 roads, despite the fact that it had never been consulted about the vast majority. “We built four roads on that list, all coordinated with the Ministry of Planning, then ran out of money. There’s no way we could build them all,” said a frustrated USAID official. “The donors and the press saw that list before we did, and because of that, we’ve had to do months of damage control for something we never agreed to.” All future road projects, the official confirmed, will only be undertaken in agreement with the Ministry of Planning.
Israel likely targeted USAID not only because it is the single largest donor in the West Bank and Gaza, but because it has a checkered history of cooperation with the PA. One international official described USAID’s idea of coordination as “talking to some mukhtar out in the middle of nowhere who says he represents the PA. That’s not the same thing as coordinating with the central authorities.” An official in the Palestinian Ministry of Planning reports that USAID has recently shown greater solicitude, but unilateral US decisions to fund controversial projects continue to irk those who accord international law a prominent role in policymaking. At a late 2004 meeting of the Local Aid Coordinating Council, many donors were initially skeptical about building homes in Khan Yunis for refugees whose Rafah dwellings had been destroyed by the Israeli army, since the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the relocation of refugees. But when the US representative suddenly announced that USAID would provide funding regardless of the meeting’s outcome, opposition unraveled.
Moreover, various media outlets have reported that US is studying Israeli requests to enhance border security, including upgrades to checkpoints and gates in the separation barrier. These projects would fall under the category of mitigation measures that the International Court of Justice has ruled illegal and the Palestinian Ministry of Planning has expressly recommended against funding. While such projects may improve everyday life for Palestinians, many fear that piecemeal humanitarian efforts that disregard the political context will only deepen the occupation. If the US government is to help salvage the rapidly receding possibility of a two-state solution, it must integrate aid into this overall strategic vision, not limit itself to a tactical retreat in the face of a political contretemps.