Borderline Views: Security or discrimination?

Borderline Views Securi

If an outside observer needs to be convinced of just how absurd and intractable the Israel-Palestine conflict has become, he/she only needs to reflect on last week's High Court ruling concerning the right of travel for Palestinians on Route 443, linking Jerusalem to Modi'in. Take a step back and think about it - the court had to remind the country, which prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, that in a democratic society, everyone has the right of access to public facilities, not least the major transportation arteries. For its part, the Defense Ministry argued that it was necessary to keep Palestinians from using this route due to the security risk involved. It was the classic argument - in the name of security, everything is permissible, even when it comes to blatant discrimination. Even the court ruling did not totally prohibit road closures, and allowed one section of 443 to remain closed to Palestinian cars. Interestingly, no such argument was used to ban settlers from using roads on the West Bank. Security is only about security for the Jewish citizens of the country, never for the Arabs or Palestinians, many of whom have suffered violence at the hands of some settlers - such as the burning of mosques, the destruction of orchards and even the murder of innocent civilians - from the Jewish underground in the 1980s, to Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, to the recent activities of Ya'acov Teitel. If anyone from the outside suggests that such policies smell of something called apartheid, we immediately reject such a comparison and write long letters and articles explaining why the system of discrimination against the black population in South Africa bears no relationship to the situation of the Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank. But for the first time in a High Court discussion, the term apartheid was used by one of the appellants on behalf of the Palestinians to describe the situation by which one ethnic group is forbidden from driving on a road exclusively reserved for the Jewish population. CALL IT security, call it discrimination, call it apartheid - it is stupid and shortsighted. It reflects, yet again, the fact that after 42 years of occupation of the West Bank, Israel is controlled by, rather than in control of, the situation. We continue to live in fear, unable to maintain a secure environment for our citizens. So we resort to incremental, half-baked solutions such as the building of concrete walls in the middle of cities and along both sides of Route 443, the prevention of free access and travel to citizens of one group, and the confiscation and destruction of olive groves and orchards in those places where we argue there is a security risk. The one thing we prove time after time is that the mighty IDF may be good at defending its external borders (and even this is not necessarily the case any more), but it is hopeless when it comes to controlling another people who want nothing more than their own political and sovereign rights. The construction of roads is part of a wider system of regional and physical planning which has always been governed by political and security dictates. During the country's first decades, the establishment of civilian settlements along its borders was seen as an integral part of its defense policy and, as such, could override any objections raised by planning, economic or environmental lobbies. I OFTEN drive from the Negev to Jerusalem via the West Bank, using roads which have been constructed and expanded in recent years to enable ease of access for the Jewish settlers and travelers, while the roads leading into Hebron, Bethlehem, Jenin and other Palestinian cities have been transformed into minor roads in poor condition, although they serve the needs of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. We drive along empty highways, while they drive along narrow, overcrowded and dangerous side roads - and we do all this in the name of security, so that we can bypass the cities which we ostensibly control but are afraid to enter, and so that we can have ease of access to every small settlement and hilltop outpost without having to encounter our neighbors who are excluded from large parts of the territory. While Palestinians are able to drive freely on all roads in Areas A and B (as defined in the Oslo Accords), there are more than 300 kilometers of roads in Area C (under Israeli control) on which they either are forbidden to travel or must have special authorization. Any car with Palestinian license plates can be prevented from travelling on these roads, especially those defined as "sterile" by the Israeli authorities. Within the Green Line, too, roads are used as a powerful political tool. The construction of the new road to Arad and parts of the Route 6 extension in the South have enabled the removal of some 15 unrecognized Beduin villages on the grounds of "public need." PLANNING IS a powerful tool of territorial and land control which can be, and in the case of Israel is, used to ensure that the political objectives of the state are achieved. And where there is no reason to build settlements along borders or construct bypass roads and highways for exclusive use, there is always the Jewish National Fund, which designates areas for afforestation - especially in close proximity to the Green Line - so as to close them to any form of alternative development, even if other communities require space to meet the residential needs of their rapidly growing populations. Security is important to all of us. None of us wants to be blown up by a roadside bomb, a Katyusha rocket or a suicide bomber, just as no Palestinian wants to see IDF tanks and soldiers in their backyard or ripping up their orchards. But to prevent the normal civilian rights and privileges of hundreds of thousands of innocent people from building homes or travelling along roads is a cynical manipulation of the security agenda - and it is this which brings our democracy into disrepute. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University, and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.