x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Palestinians battle bid to bulldoze road to statehood

West Bank politics in a nutshell: Palestinians built Freedom Road, Israeli soldiers bulldozed it.

Salam Fayyad, right, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, inspects a section of the Freedom Road that was dug up by Israel. Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP
Salam Fayyad, right, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, inspects a section of the Freedom Road that was dug up by Israel. Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

QARAWAT BANI HASSAN, WEST BANK // As Husam Assi describes it, it was an important battle on the road to Palestinian statehood.

It began in late November when Israeli soldiers took positions protecting bulldozers sent to this otherwise sleepy West Bank village to destroy a recently laid strip of asphalt. Then, Mr Assi said, Palestinian youth swarmed the Israelis from the surrounding hills.

"From the village mosque we called on the community to defend the road against the Israelis," the 49-year-old manager at Qarawat Bani Hassan's municipality said as he surveyed the area a few days later.

"More than 200 children came out, maybe as many as 300, and from the mountains they started throwing stones at them."

The soldiers fired tear gas; the youth responded with more stones and insults. But by the end of the battle, the bulldozers had ripped up several sections of the small motorway, making it impassable.

Mr Assi, watching from a nearby hilltop, said he vowed after the skirmish that we "will rebuild this road if we have to, again and again and again".

Freedom Road, as the Palestinians now call it, represents two kilometres of their defiance of Israeli control over land that they want for an independent state.

The charge is being led by someone who more closely resembles an accountant than a brash Palestinian leader of the past: Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, who has said his people will be ready for national independence by August.

Rather than urging them to take up arms, the bespectacled former World Bank economist tells Palestinians to resist Israel by allowing him to build infrastructure and trim their government's bloated budget.

It is not the sort of stuff that gets Mr Assi's adrenaline pumping.

"He's not what you would call a warrior," said Mr Assi, whose municipal office is adorned with faded posters of Yasser Arafat.

Still, when it comes to the so-called Freedom Road, Mr Assi respects the prime minister's call to technocratic arms. Despite Israeli objections, Mr Fayyad decided to allocate $350,000 (Dh1.28 million) this year to have it paved.

Israel opposed it because its path lay in Area C - land that, according to the Oslo accords, fell under Israel's control. Area C takes up about 60 per cent of the land in the West Bank, with about 120 settlements housing 300,000 Jewish settlers.

Palestinians see this arrangement as one of the biggest impediments to statehood, so when Mr Fayyad arrived for the road's inauguration ceremony on September 1, he was greeted with cheering crowds.

"We wanted to call it Salam Fayyad Road, but he insisted on calling it Freedom Road," said Mr Assi, who attended.

Perhaps one reason Mr Fayyad declined to name it after himself is that Freedom Road does not seem to lead anywhere.

Mr Assi first said the road takes villagers to a spring at the base of a valley. But the spring has been dry for several years, he admitted.

"It's here because it's beautiful land, it takes you through beautiful land," he added.

Jewish residents in the nearby illegal Israeli settlement of Havat Yair seem to have no doubt of where the road is leading: Palestinian independence on land that they also claim as their own.

"We fear this very much," said Oded, a Havat Yair settler, who would give only his first name.

Mr Assi said he and other Palestinians could see the settlers from Havat Yair celebrating when Freedom Road was destroyed.

But a few days later Mr Fayyad came to the village to observe the damage, making the same vow to rebuild it that Mr Assi made while watching bulldozers uproot the asphalt and mangle the guardrails.

Now, a small crew of municipal employees has begun repairing the road with more money provided by Mr Fayyad's office.

As he oversees the crew, Mr Assi confidently said, "We'll get it back up and running soon."

 

hnaylor@thenational.ae