Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Want to know how it feels to be George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East? Try getting from Jerusalem to Ramallah on a typical weekday at the rush hour. And experience stalemate, frustration, competitive selfishness, blind fury and an absence of movement that even the most stubborn and blinkered of West Bank bus drivers might see as a metaphor for the peace process that is going nowhere fast right now.
It took me 2 full hours to drive the 100 metres (yards) or so from the Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank barrier around Jerusalem to reach the relatively open main street through Qalandiya refugee camp, the gateway to Ramallah. The reason? Well, at its simplest it’s traffic chaos caused by anarchy, a vacuum of law and order. Look further, as with much else in the Middle East, and you get a conflicting and contrasting range of explanations.
Traffic coming through the Israeli checkpoint must merge with that arriving on a main road that follows the West Bank barrier on the Palestinian side. Just beyond the checkpoint, where these two flows merge, they must also cross with traffic going in the opposite direction, from Ramallah, either into the checkpoint or along the barrier. The snag? No traffic lights, no traffic police, no nothing (barely smooth tarmac and certainly no painted junction lines) at the crossroads. The result? Check out the picture above.
Why does it happen? For many Palestinians, the cause as in so many other respects is Israel. Take away the checkpoint and the Jewish settlements protected by further military posts and traffic would circulate much more easily. For Israelis, the checkpoints, barrier and so on are the result of Palestinian violence during the Intifada of the first part of this decade. Bad traffic is the price ordinary Palestinians are paying. Dig further, and each side will come up with a long line of causes and counter-causes going back many decades, if not millennia. Stuck in a jam at Qalandiya checkpoint, you have time to muse on all of them, believe me.