A few months ago, a group of six Palestinian residents of Ramallah decided to take a bus ride to Jerusalem. This was no ordinary ride. The Israeli government-funded bus they boarded links West Bank Jewish settlements to Jerusalem and Israel. The trip on this settler-only bus that travels on Palestinian roads did not last long. At the entrance of Jerusalem near the Palestinian village of Hizma, the Palestinian riders were forcibly taken off the bus and detained.
The Palestinian passengers, who made no effort to hide their identity or nationality, called themselves "freedom riders". They told the press covering their trip that their nonviolent actions were inspired by civil rights activists in the United States who use the same name, and that they aimed at exposing Israeli discriminatory rules in Palestinian areas.
The original Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test the Supreme Court decisions Boynton vs. Virginia (1960) and Morgan vs. Virginia. The first Freedom Ride left Washington, DC, on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17. They never made it to their destination.
Palestinians took their nonviolent protest one step further this week. On January 9, Palestinian using their cars attempted to travel on the same Israeli-only Palestinian roads and again ended up facing Israeli soldiers who arrested five. Unlike the freedom riders, the car protesters got little press coverage, although they were well covered on social media using the hashtag #carprotest.
Whether riding or driving, the protesters’ major focus was on what is referred to as Area C. Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three areas. Area A, which was mostly populated cities in the West Bank, was left under the security and administrative control of the Palestinian Authority.
Area B was areas just outside major Palestinian cities and was left under Palestinian administrative control, but Israel retained security control over it. Finally, Area C constitutes more than a third of the West Bank, including all settlements and large surrounding areas. The Israeli military establishment has both administrative and security control over it.
Area C, covering about 59% of the West Bank, includes the entire Jordan Valley (with small exceptions for Jericho and the village of Uja), as well as all areas of natural West Bank development.
While Israel continues to violate its commitments regarding the Palestinian Authority’s security control over Area A, the big problem in the coming years will be the future of the lands that Israel and Israeli settlers lust for. Even largely pro-Israel Americans involved in negotiations, like Dennis Ross, realize that Area C is the one where the potential for signs of peace can occur. Writing in the Washington Post recently, Ross called on the Israeli government to ease Palestinian access to their own lands now totally under Israeli control.
While the world still overwhelmingly supports the two-state solution, Palestinians are worried about the areas where their state should exist. Major infrastructure projects, such as an airport, can only be undertaken in areas that are now under total Israeli security and administration control. While Palestinians may be able to decide what kind of zoning laws and building codes Nablus or Hebron should follow, they cannot make any development plans outside West Bank limits.
It is no wonder that peace talks have been stuck on the issue of settlements. International envoys (mostly the Quartet) have tried to circumvent this obstacle by demanding that Palestinians and Israelis submit their plans for borders and security by January 26, 2012. Palestinians submitted their plans, the Israelis are holding back.
It is highly unlikely that in an election year in the US any breakthrough in the talks will occur. As a result, at least for the next year or so the real battlefield will be what is commonly referred to as Area C.