Tunnel vision: Highway 60 is part of a burgeoning West Bank road network that’s being used to entrench Greater Israel © Quique Kierszenbaum

Road to nowhere: Behind the headlines in Israel/Palestine

Israel may, for now, have backed off from the outright annexation of Palestinian land it has occupied for half a century. But it is burying any hope for a negotiated peace in concrete and tarmac
March 3, 2021

You’re driving south from Jerusalem towards Hebron, the biggest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank, revered in both Islam and Judaism as the site of Abraham’s grave. The journey will take you along a 28km section of Highway 60, which follows the biblical “Way of the Patriarchs” from Nazareth to Beersheba. But this venerable history is less in evidence than the fact that the road is—once again—being re-developed, as it has often been over the last 35 years. 

Ahead to your left, you can make out the minarets and spires of Bethlehem. To the right, you can see bulldozers and cranes adding extra lanes to the road. Soon you will enter first one and then a second tunnel of nearly a kilometre. After that the road briefly widens before what initially looks like the toll station on an Italian autostrada. 

But as you get closer, it’s not toll collectors but soldiers that you can see under the canopies between the lanes. This is the Tunnels Checkpoint, one of a ring of similar terminals on the main roads into Jerusalem. It is the last point that northward-bound vehicles bearing Palestinian green and white registration plates will be allowed to pass. Heading down from Jerusalem you will have seen only yellow and black Israeli number plates, despite the fact that you have already crossed, nearly 5km back and without noticing, from Israel proper into the occupied West Bank. 

It is not for the Palestinian motorists, of course, that Highway 60 is being re-engineered at an estimated cost of £197m. This is the “Tunnels Road,” plans for which first emerged in 1991, during the First Intifada. Its one purpose was to ensure that Israeli settlers in the West Bank could avoid the stones and Molotov cocktails they had faced as they drove on the old Road 60 through the middle of Bethlehem and the adjacent Palestinian Christian town of Beit Jala, deep under which the long tunnel now passes. 

It was the former general and future prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who eventually opened the Tunnels Road in 1996. He was then infrastructure minister in the first government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who—a full quarter of a century on—is about to face his seventh election as the nation’s leader, on 23rd March. Sharon grasped how a lack of secure roads stymied the growth of settlements, 60 per cent of whose working population have jobs in Israel proper. But build them, and they would come.

And indeed, the new Road 60 is no longer big enough for the settlers in places like the burgeoning Gush Etzion bloc, whose distinctively red roofs you can see on either side of it. Beyond the checkpoint, the old road winds between military watchtowers and through the orchards and olive groves of the Judaean Hills abuts the sprawling refugee camp of Al Arroub and cuts through Palestinian Beit Ummar. A brand new dual carriageway road will soon bypass both and cut the commute between Jerusalem and the further out settlement of Kiryat Arba to an easy 30 minutes.

There are few more dynamic built environments in the world than the one Israel operates in occupied territory. The separation barrier—sometimes an eight-metre wall, sometimes a fence with electronic sensors—often goes way beyond the internationally recognised border. In the 60 per cent of West Bank territory classed as “Area C”—where the settlers all live, and where the Palestinian Authority’s writ does not run—there is continuous construction. But it is overwhelmingly Israeli, because 98 per cent of Palestinian applications for building permits are rejected, and it is accompanied by the demolition of overwhelmingly Palestinian buildings. Then there are the new roads, which often have the sort of underpasses, concrete anti-sniper screens, flyovers, tunnels and bypasses evident on Highway 60. Together, these are the famous “facts on the ground” that entrench Israel’s control of occupied territory, and concrete over the hopes of peace.

The world’s once most-watched conflict (though arguably no longer) centres on the residual 22 per cent of historic Palestine seized and occupied by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. Only two decades before, Israel had established and won recognition for itself within 78 per cent of mandatory Palestine, gaining more from a bitter war than it would have done under the UN’s more even-handed partition plan, which was rejected by the Arabs. That founding conflict created 750,000 Palestinian refugees—and chronic tension. When war broke out again with Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967, a victorious Israel found itself in control of the West Bank (as well as Gaza). Soon afterwards, the Israeli government began to smile on its own citizens settling there. Motives were mixed: some players proclaimed a security need for a young and encircled state to protect its eastward flank; others were moved by an expansionist nationalist ideology or even religious feelings about holy sites. 

Whatever the spur, the ambition to colonise was pursued with fewer scruples after the right-wing Likud displaced Labour in government in 1977. By 1983, a “master plan” for the West Bank—produced by the Israeli head of the World Zionist Organisation’s settlement division—had fixed specifically on the importance of roads. It observed that “the road is the factor that motivates settlement in areas where settlement is important, and its advancement will lead to development and demand.” Hard-headed readers of the conflict across the spectrum have long agreed that the number, position and physical integration (or lack of it) of the settlers into Israel proper are the crucial factors in shaping its dynamics. 

Over the last year, however, the diplomatic world has been distracted—and often appalled—by Netanyahu’s threat to formally annex parts of the West Bank, with the Jordan Valley along the territory’s eastern boundary—far from Israel’s major population centres—already publicly identified as a potential area back in September 2019. “Sovereignty” under Israeli law, as he calls it, would be the ultimate show of contempt to international law, which the settlements already violate. (Recall how Russian president Vladimir Putin deservedly earned international notoriety for annexing Crimea in 2014, even though most of its residents identify more as Russian than Ukrainian.) In the end, annexation has been dropped (for now), in order to seal the diplomatic and economic “Abraham Accords” Israel signed last year with the unlovely Arab regimes in the UAE and Bahrain. Foreign governments, notably in Europe, breathed an almighty sigh of relief that some semblance of protocol had been preserved. But the danger was—and still is—that the world would take its eyes off the way in which Israel is continuing to remake the reality of the West Bank.

The Jerusalem-Hebron upgrade is just one of dozens of projects, planned and under construction, highlighted in a recent report, Highways to Annexation. Based on an exhaustive study of official planning documents and on-the-ground observation, and jointly produced by the Israeli Center for Public Affairs and the anti-occupation veterans’ group Breaking the Silence, it provides the clearest picture yet of how settlers are moving towards their stated goal of growing their West Bank population from today’s 450,000 to one million. (Another 220,000 live in occupied East Jerusalem, whose unilateral annexation was completed by Israel in 1980.) The report judges that whatever the legal position, “de facto annexation is accelerating at an unprecedented and devastating pace.”

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The Jerusalem to Hebron route is north-south: planned “lateral” roads running from east to west will do more damage, literally paving the way to deeper colonisation. A striking example is the planned expansion of Highway 5, which already links the large settlement of Ariel (20,000-strong, plus a university) to Tel Aviv. Under the scheme, this road would become twice as wide further east, right to the Jordan Valley. To Israel’s nationalist right, this is a logical assertion of their claim to the whole land. Seen through the prism of international law, however, it is as if German chancellor Angela Merkel were proclaiming “sovereignty” over Alsace-Lorraine and laying an autobahn all the way through it. 

Fast roads to far-flung settlements could truly bury hopes of peace. The number of West Bank settlers may have quadrupled since 1995, but half the incomers did not arrive as nationalist ideologues. Rather they are ultra-orthodox Jews, principally in search of cheap housing. Most of them live in two big communities, Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit, close to the “green line” with Israel proper. These settlements are not enough to destroy the two-state solution in the way the settler leaders want. If there were one-for-one land swaps to compensate the Palestinians, you could imagine them being absorbed into a slightly redrawn Israel in a two-state agreement. But if far more Israelis, and not just the ultra-nationalist fringe, can be persuaded to head for the more sparsely settled depths of the West Bank, then the Israeli right’s dream of a “Greater Israel” stretching from the sea to the River Jordan will be complete. 

Another lateral road, Highway 55, epitomises the process. It is scheduled to be upgraded from two to four lanes, complete with new bypass roads running as far as the settlement of Kedumim, close to Nablus, deep in the West Bank. Its current population of 4,500 is roughly the same size of, say, Chudleigh in Devon, a parish known to few outside the county, whose commuters would hardly expect the same largesse. The scheme would not pass any ordinary economic cost-benefit appraisal. But then the purpose is highly political. In the words of Yehuda Shaul, co-author of Highways to Annexation, the effect will be to “suburbanise” Kedumim and the smaller settlements, opening them up as a new frontier of practical and affordable Israeli housing.

As well as helping the settlements grow, the developing east-west roads also fragment the Palestinian territory that the world wants for a future Palestinian state. The main West Bank Palestinian population centres—Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron—are strung from north to south along the mountain ridge that slopes gradually down to the coastal plain to the west and the Jordan Valley to the east. The lateral roads divide these centres from each other, and check their ability to expand in line with a growing Palestinian population’s need for housing. As the World Zionist Organisation’s planning and strategy division put it with admirable candour in 1997: “The lateral corridors will also help… prevent uncontrolled Arab building that is liable to cause the coastal plain to be cut off from the Jordan Valley,” or—in other words—to thwart
Greater Israel.

But even such road projects, with a potential cost of billions of dollars, are dwarfed by the audacious plan unveiled last November by Netanyahu’s transport minister Miri Regev. It envisages the development, by 2045, of a West Bank comprehensive network of modern intra-settler roads. This network would be fully integrated with those in Israel proper (see map), with three “superhighways” to match the biggest roads inside Israel’s legal borders. Regev’s map is a road atlas of a single territorial unit stretching from the Mediterranean to Jordan. “This is complete integration of the entire country into one grid of highways,” explains Shaul: “If after seeing this you’re still convinced by arguments that Israel wants a two-state solution, you’re nuts.”

Israel may be the only democracy outside the US where Donald Trump was popular, because he effectively retired previous American policy in favour of a “peace plan” which was all but dictated on Israeli terms. President Joe Biden is reverting to the US’s longstanding official preference for a negotiated two-state solution, but as Regev’s road map incrementally advances, it is not clear that this will be available in the way that it was a decade or two ago. 

As to the commitment of the new president, the signals are mixed. The conflict does not seem to be high on his crowded agenda. He will not reverse Trump’s bitterly controversial decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to divided Jerusalem, though he has said he will reopen the Washington Palestinian embassy that Trump shut, as well as the US consulate serving the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. He will resume hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians that Trump cut off. And the new administration’s acting ambassador to the UN has told the Security Council that normalisation of relations between Israel and other Arab states is “not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

Biden will not, for the foreseeable future, follow Barack Obama’s first term example of seeking to resume negotiations on a final peace agreement. Understandably so, given the combination of an ageing, sclerotic Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, deeply unpopular among its own public, and an Israel that is in no mood to grant the minimum concessions needed for a deal. While the future of the West Bank was a major issue in last year’s Israeli election, this spring’s—the fourth in two years—looks set to be dominated by Covid-19. Like our prime minister, Boris Johnson, Netanyahu was heavily criticised for his earlier handling of the pandemic, but he now hopes to exploit a genuinely world-beating vaccine programme, which is marred by the reluctance to share Israel’s apparently ample vaccine supplies with any but a tiny minority of the five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In Area C, for example, as of mid-February, settlers were being or had been vaccinated, while Palestinians in neighbouring villages were not.

“Even when the settlement issue is not salient, it is never far below the surface”

Even when the settlement issue is not salient, though, it is never far below the surface. The settlers are an electoral force that cannot be ignored. With East Jerusalem included, they constitute around 10 per cent of all Jewish Israelis (and it’s specifically Jewish Israelis who normally count in the coalition haggling, because the representatives of Arab Israelis have been ignored as even potential coalition partners, at least since Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995). But the settler vote is dispersed among many parties, mainly of the right, including Likud. Netanyahu’s urgent task is to avoid an “anyone but Bibi” coalition led by someone else on the right or centre. (The Israeli left is currently too fragmented and weak to play a pivotal role.) 

Amid Netanyahu’s ongoing trial on corruption charges (which he denies), his most immediate problem is a couple of right-wing players who could upset his dominance of the right bloc. Most notable is Gideon Sa’ar, who walked out of Likud in December to form his own party, New Hope. Sa’ar has already said he will not join a Netanyahu government. Elsewhere the more overtly nationalist Naftali Bennett, who leads the right-wing alliance Yamina, has been distinctly non-committal about joining such a pact.

Age has not diminished Netanyahu’s appetite for power—or his cunning. In February, he persuaded one of his former transport ministers, the far-right settler and head of the small Religious Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich, to join a merger with two other more extreme small settler parties, the overtly racist Jewish Power and the homophobic Noam. (Combining forces raises the chance of overcoming the thresholds required to win Knesset representation.) He then controversially executed a pre-election deal—common in Israel’s electoral system—with the newly merged party so that it would back his formation of a coalition after polling day. Likud denied any knowledge of reports that Netanyahu had enticed Smotrich with a promise to press ahead with 8,000 new houses in the East Jerusalem settlement Atarot, even though it was the consistently pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom that broke the story.

It would be rash to bet against the likelihood that the right’s great survivor can—once again—cling on. But that’s less important for the conflict than the prospect that no outcome will itself disrupt the “facts on the ground.” The alternative candidates to lead Israel, possibly in rotation with each other, are Sa’ar, Bennett, and Yair Lapid (of Yesh Atid). Lapid is the nearest to a serious centrist candidate and potentially the most susceptible to US pressure. But even if he garners the votes needed to be a player, the varied right-wing forces could yet be strong enough to hem him in. 

So what will Biden do? He is not short of advice on what he should do to create conditions for an end to the occupation. Wise submissions—such as the paper jointly produced by the US/Middle East Project and the International Crisis Group—caution against prioritising merely “saving” a peace process over promoting an actual peace. Even before Trump, these groups have argued that the US stress on keeping talks going over substance is a “cover to Israeli… construction and consolidation of settlements.”

Instead, the paper says Washington must first encourage the first Palestinian elections since 2006. Mahmoud Abbas, the long-time president of the Palestinian Authority, has recently promised them for May and July, but there is still scepticism about whether they will actually take place. Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, the obvious first step (along with easing the blockade and humanitarian crisis in Gaza) is to make clear that settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is contrary to US policy. And the paper proposes tough signals to back this stance, including the US banning its scientific agencies from co-operating with Israeli researchers connected to the settlements. It also urges the Biden administration to clarify that if Israel “continues to obstruct the establishment of a fully sovereign and viable Palestinian state, any alternative will have to respect the right to full equality and enfranchisement of all those in any space controlled by Israel.” That is the “progressive” one-state solution that is anathema to Zionists because demographics would eventually make Jews a minority in the land. 

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What makes this robust approach especially striking is that it was jointly signed off by the International Crisis Group under the leadership of Robert Malley, a Middle East policy veteran under both Clinton and Obama who has now been brought into the Biden team as the lead negotiator with Iran (another potential point of confrontation with Israel). So perhaps America’s progressive establishment is finally getting tough on the building of settlement homes. 

However, even if it is possible to stop the building—the last stage of a long and tortuous planning process—that will not be enough. A parallel report published by the Centre for a New American Security, whose authors include Ilan Goldenberg and Tamara Cofman Wittes, who both worked in the State Department under Obama, demands a “particularly strong US response” to the construction of “major new infrastructure such as roads inside the West Bank.” Just like Yehuda Shaul, these American analysts understand that there can be no meaningful “road map” to peace while the literal road map of the region continues to serve colonial ends.

It’s striking that some in the settler leadership share with their adversaries in the human rights organisations a belief that “facts on the ground” can deliver annexation—or “sovereignty”—as effectively as any change in Israeli law. 

Different road projects in and around Jerusalem advance the occupation in different ways. The Qalandiya underpass will, for the first time, allow those driving from settlements to the north and east of the city to get into Jerusalem and beyond it without encountering a notorious bottleneck at the Hizma checkpoint. Others strengthen connections between settlements, as well as to Jerusalem; the extension of the Eastern Ring Road will link Har Homa, south of the city, with Ma’ale Adumim in the east. (The road’s bizarre northern section, built a decade ago, has separate lanes for Israeli and Palestinian traffic, separated by a wall, earning it the nickname the “apartheid road.”)

Others are different again. A recently approved road linking the two Palestinian villages of Al Zaim and Azaria looks minor but is of huge strategic importance. This is a so-called “fabric of life” road, which diverts Palestinians from the roads used by settlers. Although the E1 plan for settlement between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem was conceived in the 1990s, successive US administrations drew one of their few red lines and opposed it, on the grounds that it would complete the territorial severing of East Jerusalem from the West Bank and create “contiguity” between the Israeli settlement and the city. By removing Palestinian traffic from the area, this little road clears the way for the plan. Naftali Bennett has jubilantly dubbed it the “sovereignty road.” 

As Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the council in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc—which will grow and benefit from the Highway 60 upgrading—told Haaretz in December: “There’s diplomatic sovereignty and there’s de facto sovereignty. Construction, industrial zones, roads, gas, electricity and water—all these things are de facto sovereignty.”

From the opposite end of the Israeli spectrum, Shaul—who is investigating electricity, sewage, water and fibre-optic as well as road plans in the West Bank—agrees: “The settler leadership don’t really prioritise announcements of 200 houses in Kiryat Arba here or 100 somewhere else,” he says. “What they have been campaigning for is a real bump-up of infrastructure which will allow a huge bump-up of settlement growth.” A freeze on settlement housebuilding of the sort the US has demanded in the past, though desirable, will do little lasting good if infrastructure is paving the way for more building later. Only if the infrastructure building itself can be stopped is the whole dynamic arrested. 

Whatever the formalities, de facto sovereignty is now at stake. Shaul campaigned against legal annexation last year but insists that its shelving “doesn’t mean we should calm down,” but rather “the opposite.” The international mobilisation that saw off Netanyahu’s earlier unlawful plans must be ramped up, so as “to fight de facto annexation as forcefully.”