The state of the roads in the West Bank gives a good idea of where the resumed Palestinian-Israeli talks are heading – and it certainly isn’t in the direction of peace. You can see a number of them from the hilltop town of al-Khader, just outside Bethlehem – from modern highways to rockstrewn dirt tracks. The best are designed for vehicles with registration plates bearing the Israeli flag and the country’s name written in Hebrew. Poor and dispossessed Arabs, whose transport is easily identified by green-numbered plates, have to stick to the back roads.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, who is leading resumed diplomatic efforts in Jerusalem, would certainly be advised to check out the view from the heights of al-Khader. This week I saw constant Israeli army convoys heading off to strengthen Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. The military will be even busier over the next few months after Tel Aviv approved the building of 3,100 new settler homes, many in East Jerusalem – the very place that Palestinian peacemakers want to be their capital city. On 12 August Kerry said the new Israeli colonies would not halt talks, explaining: “We have known there was going to be a continuation of some building.”
In fact, “some building” is by far the biggest stumbling block. Construction on land occupied by the Israelis following the 1967 Six Day War has been condemned by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice; no foreign government in the world officially supports it.
The unbridled expansion of Jewish settlements in the very areas where Palestinians are supposed to have a state will add to the almost 700,000 illegal settlers in about 120 communities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Beyond the segregated roads – the fast, slick ones for Israelis and the slow, potholed ones for Palestinians – there is barbed wire, machine-gun posts and, most sinister of all, the West Bank Barrier. This is a 430-milelong wall keeping Palestinians out of their lands, which have diminished to less than 20 per cent of historic Palestine. Crossings, many of which I negotiated on foot, are like cattle grids, with only a very few people herded through following stringent security checks.
Israel claims that the barrier exists solely to protect civilians from attack, but it is undeniably the concrete symbol of the annexation of Palestinian territory. Attempts to reinforce the wall over the past few months have led to Arab farmland being cut off from al-Khader, leaving the already desperate agricultural workers with no living at all. When they complain, everything from tear gas and batons to live ammunition is used against them.
All of this is day-to-day life in the occupied territories. Unless Kerry can appreciate that, the road to peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict will be going nowhere.