If This is the Road, I’d Rather be Lost

It could be argued that that the average male has a very difficult time admitting when they get lost. Only as a last-ditch effort to save face will they stop and ask for directions. If only they had checked the map, their destination could have been reached in half the time.

So it was with great pomp and fanfare from the US Administration (with the backup of the Quartet ­ the EU, the UN, the US, and Russia), and a tremendous amount of wary scepticism from the people of the Palestine and Israel, that President Bush presented his so-called “Road Map” for Middle East peace. The plan that is supposed to guide those gone astray in reaching the elusive goal of peace.

In this world of sexist politics dominated by men, and my own delight in finding ironic metaphors for analyzing the political rhetoric in comparison with the reality of our daily lives, I found it somewhat amusing that this gang of acronyms, all headed by some of the most arrogant men in power, were calling their grandiose plan a “Road Map”. A slight attempt at humility in the wake of a history of evil deeds in this region? Hardly. Perhaps the need for a catchy title to cover up the fact that this plan is not based on anything that resembles social, political or economic justice? Definitely.

Despite the tremendous uncertainty over the viability of such a plan, combined with the knowledge that there is not an ounce of justice contained in its pages, many Palestinians still held onto a shred of hope that, perhaps, life will become a little easier now. Maybe we won’t have a real state, human rights, the right of return for refugees, or a seat at the United Nations, but maybe we will have the opportunity to work and put bread on the table.

A Road Map. Maps can be dangerous things when they are not drawn well. One slip of the hand can inadvertently erase an entire city, draw a river where one does not exist, or fail to properly illustrate the sharp curve going around a mountain pass. This “Road Map” for Middle East peace has been drawn with such a careless hand that one could hardly imaging getting anywhere useful by following its guidance. Based upon the same pitfalls as the Oslo Agreement, the “Road Map” makes no mention of the most critical issues that need to be addressed such as Jerusalem, the dismantling of all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the control over water resources, and acknowledging the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

One of the starting points on this map was to be an “easing of restrictions on Palestinians in order to improve the humanitarian conditions.” From my own experience and eyewitness on this issue alone, I can say without hesitation that so many wrong turns have been taken that it seems almost impossible to imagine that we can find our way out.

The first wrong turn came right after US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the region in mid-May. During that visit, Israel committed itself to being easing the humanitarian crisis that the Palestinians have been suffering under for almost three years. Instead of going left, the government of Israel turned right. A full closure was imposed on Gaza. No one ­ Palestinian or foreigner ­ was allowed to enter or leave the overcrowded swath of land. If a humanitarian aid worker, such as myself, wanted to enter Gaza, they had to sign a waiver issued by the Israeli army absolving them of any responsibility if we were shot AND stating that we were not a part of any kind of international peace and justice organization such as the International Solidarity Movement. When we refused to sign, we were denied entry. As a result, some international organizations such as Medicines du Monde have been forced to cease their life-saving programs on which so many have come to depend upon. Then there was the shooting of the Swiss diplomat’s car in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, that sparked further outrage but yielded little results. To this day, access to Gaza remains extremely limited as the poverty slips further to the point of no return in this already devastated area of Palestine.

Then, in a renewed set of commitments ahead of this weeks’ summit in Aqaba, Jordan, between President Bush, Prime Minister Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon, the Israeli government once again stated that as of (last) Saturday at midnight, it was easing restrictions on Palestinians’ movement and would allow workers to get to their jobs.

Another chance, another wrong turn. Instead of moving forward, we moved backwards.

Monday morning, on my way to work with three of my colleagues, the soldiers at the DCO checkpoint at the north end of Ramallah denied us passage, saying that Palestinians who hold West Bank IDs were not permitted to cross. Furious, I took the lead in arguing with the soldier that we pass here every day, that we all work for the same humanitarian organization, and that we needed to get to our office in Al Ram (the north end of Jerusalem).

“No, you must go back,” the soldier replied flatly.

After ten more minutes of cajoling and stating that, according to statements made this soldier’s government, we were supposed to be allowed through the checkpoints to get to work, he relented, stating that this would be the last time.

Then, later in the day, the bend in the road became sharper and sharper until we found ourselves thrown headlong into danger. Following this road map, believing that it was telling us at least the partial truth, did not prepare us for the crisis of yesterday afternoon. Around 2:30pm we were informed that Ramallah was being placed under curfew. Half an hour later, word reached us that Qalandiya checkpoint, the hideous military blockade that divides the Jerusalem-Ramallah corridor, was closed along with all other roads in the area. Unsure of what to do, those of us who live in Ramallah decided to leave work a few minutes early in the hopes of getting home before the situation deteriorated further. Maybe we could reach the northern DCO checkpoint before it closed and get back into the city.

Upon reaching the road that leads around Qalandiya towards the DCO, we were stuck. All roads were blocked and there was no way to pass. Realizing that reaching the northern entrance to Ramallah was impossible due to all of the roadblocks, we parked the car on the side of the road and decided to travel on foot to the Qalandiya checkpoint. Upon reaching it, we discovered that it was closed off by barbed wire and concrete blocks. Hundreds of people were desperately trying to get through the checkpoint, but to no avail.

We were trapped. The checkpoints into Jerusalem were closed. The checkpoints into Ramallah were closed.

Then the shooting started.

The Israeli soldiers on both sides of the checkpoint were firing live bullets, tear gas, and concussion grenades at the desperate crowds of people. It was a horrible scene. Even the elderly were not spared; I saw one old man begging to be allowed to pass through the checkpoint to go home, but the soldier grabbed him roughly and dragged him to the back of the anxious crowd.

After two more hours of shooting, panicking, and outright begging, some people (myself included) pushed their way through the checkpoint and made it safely to the other side. But the chaos ensued for another few hours before most people were allowed to proceed.

And now, the day after, those of us living in Ramallah are still under curfew. All of the checkpoints are totally closed. No one can move either within the city or outside of it.

Where is the hope? Where is the justice? Why should we believe any promises, statements, pledges or maps when life on the ground for us ordinary people continues to be a daily struggle for survival?

If this is what the “Road Map” looks like, I think that I would rather be lost.

AMELIA PELTZ can be reached at: atpeltz@attglobal.net.