Alastair MacDonald
Reuters (Blog)
October 26, 2009 - 12:00am

Want to know how it feels to be George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East? Try getting from Jerusalem to Ramallah on a typical weekday at the rush hour. And experience stalemate, frustration, competitive selfishness, blind fury and an absence of movement that even the most stubborn and blinkered of West Bank bus drivers might see as a metaphor for the peace process that is going nowhere fast right now.

It took me 2 full hours to drive the 100 metres (yards) or so from the Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank barrier around Jerusalem to reach the relatively open main street through Qalandiya refugee camp, the gateway to Ramallah. The reason? Well, at its simplest it’s traffic chaos caused by anarchy, a vacuum of law and order. Look further, as with much else in the Middle East, and you get a conflicting and contrasting range of explanations.

Traffic coming through the Israeli checkpoint must merge with that arriving on a main road that follows the West Bank barrier on the Palestinian side. Just beyond the checkpoint, where these two flows merge, they must also cross with traffic going in the opposite direction, from Ramallah, either into the checkpoint or along the barrier. The snag? No traffic lights, no traffic police, no nothing (barely smooth tarmac and certainly no painted junction lines) at the crossroads. The result? Check out the picture above.

Why does it happen? For many Palestinians, the cause as in so many other respects is Israel. Take away the checkpoint and the Jewish settlements protected by further military posts and traffic would circulate much more easily. For Israelis, the checkpoints, barrier and so on are the result of Palestinian violence during the Intifada of the first part of this decade. Bad traffic is the price ordinary Palestinians are paying. Dig further, and each side will come up with a long line of causes and counter-causes going back many decades, if not millennia. Stuck in a jam at Qalandiya checkpoint, you have time to muse on all of them, believe me.

There are a few nuances. Palestinians point out that the violence of the Intifada has died away. But Israelis note that a security guard was wounded in a stabbing at Qalandiya only on Sunday. As I sat imprisoned in a car on Monday, boys aged 14 or less took advantage of the inability of Israeli jeeps to drive out and grab them to lob stones into the checkpoint. Palestinians complain that Israeli troops have authority over the roads around the checkpoint under the Olso accords of the 1990s, but in fact show little or no interest in managing traffic beyond the confines of the checkpoints search bays. Palestinians argue that they manage traffic pretty well in Ramallah itself. A minor economic upswing in the past few months in the West Bank, grudgingly attributed at least in part to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of easing security roadblocks, seems to have contributed to bringing more cars onto the roads. Traffic lights and traffic cops keep reasonable order in the Palestinian cities. But out in the no man’s land close to the Israeli barrier, they are not allowed to operate.

What else can you learn sitting tight for a couple of hours breathing other people’s exhaust fumes? 1. Yasser Arafat is still popular, as attested to by some nifty graffiti art on the wall itself. 2. It’s an ill wind that blows no good in the Middle East - enterprising young men were hawking gum, cigarettes and sunglasses with rather more success than usual to the stranded motorists. 3. Brutally selfish pig-headedness seems to pay, after a fashion, in these parts. The guys with the baddest attitude and least regard for their fellow man or woman, seem to get to the front of the queue, and no one seems able to stop them.

That’s a pretty sad lesson to take away, but one that Mr Mitchell may be becoming familiar with as he struggles to coax anything looking like compromise from any of his interlocutors. However, if one can find any positives, perhaps it is this. I did eventually get across the crossroads, even if it did take a big chunk of my afternoon. And I did so quicker than I might have done if total anarchy had prevailed. For, in time, at least, in this small, ugly, scarred spot of the Middle East, ordinary people did come to the rescue. Groups of men from the refugee camp, with no obvious authority but the odd chequered headscarf, leather jacket or a don’t-mess-with-me moustache, started directing the traffic, blocking everything from cheeky Suzukis to belching 16-wheelers with their bodies and forcing apart the gridlocked mess to start the process of clearing the backlog. A few thousand years after Moses and the Red Sea, another miracle in the Middle East. Mr Mitchell may have to hope for one. But at least the good folk of Qalandiya camp showed that, just maybe, such things really can happen around here.

I wouldn’t bet on it. But thanks anyway, guys.


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