Until a few days ago, the sign stood majestically on the broken up Ramallah-Jerusalem road near the Qalandia refugee camp. With the USAID logo and the motto “Gift from the American People”, the sign informed all travelling on this congested and totally broken up 19th century artery that will soon become a proper 21st century highway.
People of all walks of life and political colours had welcomed the chance of driving to and from Ramallah at ease and without worrying about the next flat tyre or replacing their shock absorbers.
The segment of this road that was the beneficiary of the generosity of US taxpayers is contentious.
Officially the road is the responsibility of the state of Israel and specifically the Jerusalem municipality. That segment reflects part of the unilaterally expanded limits of what Israelis like to call the “unified city” of Jerusalem. But this segment falls past the major checkpoint created since the current Al Aqsa Intifada and therefore outside the usual reach of the Israeli army which would have to be deployed if an Israeli contractor were to fix it.
At the same time, this segment of the road falls outside the Palestinian Authority’s reach and if Palestinian workers were seen by the Israelis fixing their road, the Israeli army would be deployed to stop them, based on the concept that the one who fixes a road owns it!
The deterioration of the road has continued for six years and along with the infamous Qalandia checkpoint became a mark of the travel restrictions, oppression and ugliness of the occupation. Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bullets, pregnant mothers lost their babies and an entire population lost hours of their lives daily waiting at this checkpoint.
In the past few weeks, a positive development happened. The erection of international border-like checkpoint at Qalandia and the completion of the wall in this area has actually meant a miraculous change. Except for people with Jerusalem-plate cars intending to go directly to Jerusalem, the road is checkpoint free. Cars, trucks and buses go in and out without any restriction.
I took a taxi from the King Hussein Bridge to Ramallah and after leaving the bridge terminal area was not stopped once until I got in downtown Ramallah. The Palestinian driver was surprised that two new traffic lights had been erected and were working as we entered Al Bireh. He had not driven from Jerusalem in months.
But the absence of the checkpoint has done little to improve the road. As more cars, buses and trucks are using this road, the deterioration has got worse. The USAID promise to fix the road has since evaporated with the departure of the Fateh-led Cabinet. And the sign which stood majestically a few months ago, witnessed the first defacing, with someone splattering black ink on it.
Without any convincing explanation, USAID suspended this strategically important project. As part of a new US government policy, only humanitarian projects will continue to be funded after the takeover of the Palestinian government by the Islamists’ head of the list of reform and change, Ismael Haniyeh.
The road works near Qalandia were not the only casualty of the new US policy. While Laura Bush and Her Majesty Queen Rania were celebrating in Washington (with Elmo and the Egyptian Khokha) the Middle East Sesame Street projects at a fund raiser by the wives of Arab ambassadors, USAID was sending letters regretting that it could not support the new season of Shara’s Simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street.
The American foreign policy, which is overriding the American people’s developmental decisions, makes little sense. Roads and muppets are not the problem in the Middle East. The problem, to coin part of a slogan by a former American president, is much simpler than taking it out on inanimate subjects. “It is the occupation, stupid.”