The imperialist roots of the “conflict reduction” policy in occupied Palestine

Shira Pinhas * – (+972 Magazine) 17/5/2022

Translation: Aladdin Abu Zina

Long before Israel built separate road networks to maintain separation between Jews and Palestinians, the British had already laid the foundation for this approach.

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    The past year has seen numerous headlines in Israel and abroad referring to the “conflict reduction” doctrine – especially since the election of one of its strongest supporters, Naftali Bennett, as prime minister. The idea, based on the writings of Micah Goodman (who himself is a resident of the West Bank settlement Kfar Adumim), is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved, and therefore only needs to be managed more effectively. In light of the stated goals of improving the quality of life of Palestinians and increasing the economic efficiency of the occupation, this strategy proposes the establishment of separate movement and transportation systems for Israelis and Palestinians in an effort to increase Palestinian resistance to the occupation. to reduce.
    Several academic studies suggest that the restriction of Palestinian movement over the past two decades has become a large part of the way the Israeli occupation is carried out on a daily basis. The settlers themselves are well aware of this: for example, the Israeli real estate company Lev Har Yazamot, which markets homes in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, recently launched a campaign called “The New Pioneers” aimed at “families who consider community” and settlement as value. ” Alia, but she will be happy to live in a spacious house of 197 square meters with 5 bedrooms. ” The campaign included a reference to the essential and inevitable: “You will not live in a settlement that does not have a bypass leading to it.”
    Goodman appears to be well versed in this matter. Therefore, building separate road networks for Israelis and Palestinians is at the heart of her eight-step plan to “reduce conflict,” which she published in The Atlantic in 2019; The first step was “Keep It Flow”. Goodman proposes a hypothetical Palestinian living in Ramallah who wants to visit his cousin in Nablus, and describes the continuing insecurity and humiliation caused by Israel’s control of Palestinian roads, which is open to Palestinians at the will of the Israeli army. be closed.
    The solution to this problem, according to Goodman, is to build a network of roads that will connect the various parts of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority (ie the main Palestinian towns and cities), while completely bypassing the Israelis. . settlements. According to Goodman’s statement, these new routes will join separate shuttle bus rides for Palestinians from the West Bank to reach Ben Gurion Airport, a separate Palestinian crossing originating in Haifa Bay (under Israeli control), and more.
    Goodman’s idea of ​​using roads to reduce conflict may seem new, but it may in fact trace its origins back to the ways in which the British Empire used civil infrastructure to reduce disagreement in the colonies. The Israeli historian Revel Nets showed that the British first used transport infrastructure as a weapon during the Boer War in South Africa. Three and a half decades later, the British mandated authorities implemented a similar initiative in Palestine, by constructing bypass roads designed to bypass the main roads controlled by Palestinian militants. However, instead of reducing the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, this initiative laid the groundwork for its escalation.
    clear logic
    During the Arab Uprising (1939-1936) that erupted in Palestine against British colonialism and the continuation of Jewish settlement in Palestine, the British Empire adopted the strategy of building a new network of roads throughout Palestine with the aim of reducing traffic to bypass and to bypass. routes controlled by Arab fighters. This uprising, which was the largest against colonialism anywhere in the British Empire between the two world wars, included frequent attacks on British and Zionist vehicles, as well as the blocking of major roads. The central hub for the revolutionaries was located in the area between Tulkarm, Nablus and Qalqilya, which the British called the “Terror Triangle”.
    The transport paralysis in this area had far-reaching consequences, as until the late 1930s there was only one major north-south road in Palestine – today known as “Route 60” – starting in Nazareth and passing through Jenin and Nablus. and Jerusalem, and ends in Beersheba. Consequently, the paralysis of traffic on this road allowed the revolutionaries to stop transport across the country.
    The British army’s need to circumvent the rebel strongholds became the main impetus for the initiative to build and pave major roads through various parts of Palestine during the second half of the 1930s – the largest such campaign in the country’s history. The military road program led to the construction of 840 kilometers of roads – about a third of all paved roads during the years of British rule, which began in 1920 and ended in 1948 with the establishment of the “State of Israel”.
    The main road paved to bypass Jenin and Tulkarm was the Jaffa-Haifa Road, today known as “Route 4”. Its construction began as early as 1927, and progressed slowly over a decade – sometimes at an open rate of only a few kilometers, or even a few hundred meters per year – despite great pressure from Jewish settlements. and Zionist organizations that insisted on the completion of the apartment. This happened because Britain had already built a parallel railway line and did not feel like making a road that would compete with its own and harm revenue. With the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, the need for an alternative road increased urgently, and the British made a mistake: the remaining 79 kilometers of road were completed by September 1937, with the last 25 kilometers paved in a record time of 45 days.
    If we think back now, the description of the Jaffa-Haifa road as a “detour” seems a bit strange, especially since the highway that connects two of the country’s largest cities seems natural and sought after. Until the end of the 1930s, however, there were few Jewish settlements between the Palestinian villages along the Palestinian coast, which is probably why the British authorities regarded the area as nothing more than a deserted swamp. In the eyes of the British, the importance of building such a road was to transport citrus from the orchards from the coastal plain to the port of Haifa for export. The authorities have even gone so far as to make more roads a condition for the expansion of citrus cultivation.
    In addition to the Jaffa-Haifa Road, the British built a number of other important detours from west to east, including the Hadera-Afula Road, today known as the “Wadi Ara Road,” and the Zichron Ya’acov-Yokneam Road. road, known as the Valley of Milk Road. . The rationale behind making these detours was very clear to people at the time. For example, when the Wadi Ara road was built, the Davar newspaper affiliated with the Zionist labor organization Histadrut wrote: “The new Hadera-Afula road will make it possible to cross the distance between Samaria and the Jezreel Valley without the need to (use) the Tulkarm and Jenin roads. These central roads can promise normal traffic without being affected by the turmoil we experienced during the days of violence. ”
    Failed imperial tactics
    The road network built and paved throughout Palestine in the 1930s was not just a congestion of small roads. Together, these roads formed a critical mass that for the first time designated certain areas of the country as “Arab” or “Jewish” and led to the designation of “Jewish roads” and “Arab roads”, as it was called. . during that period. The network also created for the first time a Jewish enclave along the coastal plain in which one could travel without going through a single Arab region, thus laying the foundation for a separate Jewish region in the country.
    It was no coincidence that these roads were completed in 1937. That year, the Peel Commission, set up to investigate the causes of the Arab uprising, published its recommendations, which included abolishing the British mandate and replacing it with two sovereign states – Arab and Jewish. It was the first time a British official had recommended the partition of Palestine. Why, exactly, was 1937 the year that division became possible?
    The construction of the Jaffa-Haifa Road, which was completed that year and was intended to serve as the central artery of the proposed Jewish state — along with the roads connecting Jewish settlements in the Jezreel Valley with the coastal plain — prevents a viable division between the eastern and western parts of the country. This spatial separation allowed the Zionist settlement in spite of the Palestinian resistance.
    The Peel Commission’s proposal to divide the land, which contradicted the position of the Palestinian Arab political leadership, did not resolve or suppress the Palestinian uprising. About two months after the publication of the Peel plan, the uprising resumed in full force, until the British army was able to suppress it in 1939 in cooperation with both the military and intelligence forces of the Haganah, the Zionist paramilitary organization.
    There are, of course, significant differences between the British Army’s road construction plan and Goodman’s plan. While Britain has used infrastructure merely as a combat strategy, Goodman and her supporters say they want to improve the quality of life for Palestinians in the occupied territories by boosting their economy and reducing the humiliation they face by the occupation authorities. In a recent interview, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett expressed support for the idea of ​​”reducing conflict,” saying it would allow “more movement, more quality of life, more business, more industry.”
    But the assumptions based on Goodman and Bennett’s ideas are very similar to their historical source. First, both the Goodman / Bennett Plan and the British Plan consider the Palestinians as a topic to be managed rather than people to talk to directly. Second, both plans sought to end the conflict over this country by reformulating it as a non-political infrastructure issue, the real consequence of which is the spatial separation between Arabs and Jews. Although this separation was an unintended consequence of the road network built by the British government, “conflict reduction” changed it into the declared agenda of the current Israeli government, with the aim of overcoming Israel’s control of the entire land between the river and the sea.
    Goodman’s idea, that “the solution (to the occupation and resistance to that occupation) is neither strategic nor political, but a matter of infrastructure”, is in fact a failed imperial tactic more than 100 years old. Palestinian opposition to Zionist settlement did not disappear then, and it will not disappear today. At a time when human rights organizations are increasingly recognizing the Palestinian claim that Israel is pursuing an apartheid regime between the river and the sea, it is important to recognize the imperial origins of the system of spatial separation in Palestine, and to explain who the people continue to promote and strengthen it today.

* Shira Pinhas is a doctoral student in history at Tel Aviv University. Her research focuses on the social history of oil and mobility in Palestine during the British Mandate. Portions of this article were also published in a special issue of the Journal of Levantine Studies dedicated to the Middle East in world history.
* This article was published under the title: The imperial roots of ‘shrinking the conflict’

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