Settlers' roads carve up PLO domain

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The Independent Online
Kiryat Arba - The new road for Jewish settlers ran like a black thread over the hills between Hebron and Jerusalem, new tarmac that glistened in the cold rain. But Naim of Gaza, for that is how he identified himself, not wanting to grace Israeli occupation with his family name, was not worried. "The road is for the settlers of Kiryat Arba but Arafat says it's only for five years," he said, his Israeli employer standing beside him, listening intently to our conversation. "Mr Arafat says this is only for a transitional period. Of course I trust him."

But look, we said, look at the road, constructed on crushed stone, three inches of tarmac with new safety barriers and elegant road signs in Hebrew. This must cost millions; anyone who believes this is built for only five years must be financially insane or a liar. Here is a new highway linking the settlers of Kiryat Arba outside Hebron to the "eternal and unified capital of Israel" that will last 20 years or more. Naim of Gaza smiled. He trusted Mr Arafat, he said. And his Israeli employer, huddling in his rain cape, nodded his agreement.

Well, maybe Naim of Gaza is right. After all, only half an hour earlier two Israeli taxi-drivers outside the King David Hotel in Israeli West Jerusalem had pointedly refused to drive me to Arab East Jerusalem. So much, I thought at the time, for the "eternal and unified" capital of Israel. But those "settler roads" - to allow settlers on confiscated Arab land to drive to Jerusalem without contact with Palestinians - are snaking across the landscape of Yasser Arafat's "Palestine", bisecting and trisecting his land like a salami. Built, of course, by Palestinians such as Naim of Gaza.

And in the harder towns, such as Hebron, the reality of these roads that chop the West Bank into pieces means more than the honeyed words of Western diplomats and satellite television reporters. "We will have only cantons," Abdul-Haj, a grocer of Hebron complained to me an hour later. "Arafat will be the mukhtar of the cantons. You have to understand that he is not going to help us. He only seeks power and for this he will work for the Israelis. I remember what Golda Meir said to Sadat when he visited Jerusalem. She said that the government of any state should work for its people. And this is our problem because our Arab leaders don't work for their people - only for power. The Israelis work for their people. This is why the Israelis are strong and we are weak; which is why we must go back to Islam."

Across the windy hill behind Abdul-Haj of Hebron, David of Kiryat Arba, immensely tall, 22 years old, a Jewish student at Shiloh waiting for an Eged bus, was more ambiguous, armed with the arguments that Arab guerrilla leaders used to deploy in front of Western journalists 15 years ago. "I think what Rabin did was wrong - but it was wrong that he should be killed. Because it is wrong for any man to take the life of any other man," he said. "I do not believe in this peace process. I will only leave here in one way: in a coffin. I believe in the Bible. This land was given to us."

Like a tape cassette, David moved through the Biblical quotations. His parents had moved from Morocco to Kiryat Arba, believing that God had given Judea and Samaria to the Jews. He captured the very spirit of the old men of the Palestinian revolution whom I used to meet in Beirut in the late 1970s: commitment without imagination. Perhaps all fundamentalism should be defined in this way, the integrity of their quarrel undefiled by doubt. But then up walked Eilan of Eilat - and the anonymity of all family names in this report are at the specific request of their Arab and Jewish owners - who was an Arabic-speaking Israeli soldier of 20 on joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols in the West Bank.

"Whatever they tell you," he said - and here he nodded in David's direction - "we have no business in Bethlehem or Tulkarem or Shkheim [Nablus]. We should be out of there. It's not our land."

But what about the settlers themselves, I asked? Was it their land? Many smiles here, but few words. "Look, I can't talk politics, just to say that we should give back their towns." And East Jerusalem? "Never," Eilan replied, all of which suggested that Abdul-Haj and his predictions of "cantons" was too close to the mark.

In Bethlehem, on the eve of its "liberation" from Israeli troops, the Palestinians preferred to avoid the subject of Jerusalem. "It should be an international city," the tour guide insisted - no identity here, not even a Christian name - "and the religious sites must be controlled by Christians, Muslims and Jews." I had heard this argument a thousand times. But the declaration of principles, the final status negotiations on Jerusalem - what was to become of them, I asked? And the guide, a thin, raincoated figure with an equally thin moustache, shrugged his shoulders. "This is not my business."

But of course, it is his business. At present he cannot even drive the few miles to Jerusalem, let alone call it his capital. To travel to Ramallah or Jericho from Bethlehem, there is a newly improved road - the Arafat trail - that swoops dangerously into wadis and across escarpments, providing West Bank Palestinians with just the merest glance of the spires of the city they cannot visit.