The road that fell between the cracks

First potholes, and now the Muppets.

Until a few days ago the sign stood majestically on the broken-up Ramallah-Jerusalem road near the Kalandia refugee camp. With the USAID logo and the motto "A Gift From The American People," the sign informed all traveling on this congested and totally decrepit 19th-century artery that it would soon become a proper 21-century highway. People of all walks of life and political colors had welcomed the chance of driving to and from Ramallah at ease and without worrying about the next flat tire or need to replace their shock absorbers. The segment of this road that was the target of the generosity of US taxpayers is contentious. Officially the road is the responsibility of the State of Israel, 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 Aksa Intifada and, therefore, outside the usual reach of the Israeli army, which would have to be deployed if an Israeli contractor was to fix it. At the same time it falls outside the Palestinian Authority's reach and, anyway, my guess is that 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 he who fixes a road owns it! THE DETERIORATION of the road has continued for six years. Along with the infamous Kalandia checkpoint it has become a mark of the travel restrictions, oppression and ugliness of the occupation. The crossing has sometimes been a violent confrontation point; there have been pregnant women afraid they would not be able to get through a checkpoint when they are in labor, and an entire population has lost long hours of their lives waiting daily at this checkpoint. In the past few weeks, there has been a positive development. The erection of a new, international border-like crossing at Kalandia and the completion of the wall in this area have actually meant a miraculous change. Except for cars with Israeli license plates intending to go directly to Jerusalem, the road from Ramallah to Kalandia is checkpoint-free. Cars and trucks and buses are going in and out without any restriction. But the absence of the checkpoint has done little to improve the road. As more vehicles use this road, the deterioration increases. The promise of USAID to fix the road has evaporated with the departure of the Fatah-led cabinet. And the sign, which stood majestically a few months ago, suffered its first defacing when someone splattered black ink on it. USAID suspended this strategically important project without any explanation. As part of a new US policy, only humanitarian projects will continue to be funded after the takeover of the Palestinian government by the Islamists of Hamas. The road works near Kalandia are not the only casualty of the new US policy. While First Lady Laura Bush and Jordan's Queen Rania were celebrating the Middle East Sesame street projects at a fundraiser by the wives of the Arab ambassadors in Washington, USAID was sending letters regretting that it cannot support the new season of Simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street. US foreign policy, 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's the occupation, stupid.