'I don't know what I would do if my daughter had to go through that humiliation." A U.S. congressman said those words to me while watching Qalandia checkpoint, the key Israeli roadblock between occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war and Israel's military occupation of Palestinian territory, his comment is particularly poignant. As both a Palestinian and an American, I wonder what my fellow Americans would do if they lived for 40 years with every aspect of their lives controlled by a foreign army, or what members of Congress would do if they had to pass through an occupier's checkpoint on Capitol Hill.
In 1995, I worked with other Palestinians to launch the Coca-Cola franchise in the West Bank and Gaza. I am one of many Palestinian-American businessmen who invested after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. They were supposed to have ended the occupation and led to the formation of an independent and economically viable Palestinian state. We were determined to create jobs and build businesses that would bring Palestinians hope for a free and prosperous future. Instead, the occupation has become more entrenched. And we see the toll it takes on the new generation of Palestinians - every man, woman and child under the age of 40 who has not known a day of freedom in his or her lifetime.
Israel is the leading foreign destination for privately sponsored congressional trips. Yet while the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of our most critical foreign policy issues, few members of Congress visit the occupied Palestinian territories. I tell those who do that a trip through Qalandia checkpoint will show them most of what they need to know.
The checkpoint is a microcosm of the Palestinian experience. More than 500 Israeli checkpoints are scattered throughout the West Bank, which is roughly the size of Delaware. Palestinian students wait at checkpoints, sometimes for hours, to get to school. Others wait years to visit their parents in Gaza while studying in the West Bank. Laborers wait to get to work, mothers to the grocery store, and doctors to the hospital. With a wave of a soldier's hand, they might pass through and make it to their final exam or to the hospital in time to deliver a healthy baby. Just as easily, the soldier can stop them. Hours at a checkpoint can mean missing an exam or losing a baby to a miscarriage.
Israel's military occupation similarly blocks the economic, political and social potential of Palestine. Like all people, when allowed to live in freedom, Palestinians have thrived. Economic development in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf countries was largely driven by Palestinians. Palestinian-Americans are accomplished businesspeople, educators and artists. But in their homeland, the military occupation hems Palestinians in, limits their horizons and stifles their potential. Is this in Israel's best interest?
For 40 years, America has called on Israel to end the occupation. There is international consensus that the creation of an independent Palestinian state would bring peace and stability to the region. Yet the occupation and relentless building of new Israeli settlements continues unabated. Consecutive American administrations have agreed that settlements are illegal. Still, at least 20,000 new Jewish settlers moved into the West Bank last year alone. And the prospects for an independent Palestinian state darken.
A viable state cannot be built on a ruined economy. Various agreements - beginning with the Oslo Accords and most recently the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access - required the free movement of people and goods within the Palestinian territory. Yet, according to a recent World Bank report, Israeli restrictions leave more than 50 percent of the West Bank off limits to Palestinians while the movement of Israeli settlers living there illegally remains relatively unhindered. We can spend hours at Qalandia and the many other checkpoints, while Israeli settlers speed by on Israeli-only roads.
The World Bank notes that these restrictions "create such a high level of uncertainty and inefficiency that the normal conduct of business becomes exceedingly difficult and stymies the growth and investment which is necessary to fuel economic revival." I know this firsthand. Today Coca-Cola employs hundreds of Palestinians. Yet, it is virtually impossible to compete fairly when my goods and my employees cannot move freely, even within our own community.
American interests suffer, too. Our credibility is damaged when Israel ignores U.S.-brokered agreements, yet remains the beneficiary of unparalleled American financial and diplomatic support. American peacemaking efforts are premised on the notion that a better future is possible, a future where both Palestinians and Israelis live in peace, freedom and dignity. On this anniversary of the 1967 war, the United States should fully engage and commit to winning the war of peace. The first step is for the occupation to end. Surely 40 years has been too long.
Khouri is CEO of the Palestinian National Beverage Co. and a board member of the Palestinian Development Investment Co. He is chairman of the Palestine International Business Forum and chairs the largest Palestinian NGO, the NGO Development Center, in association with the World Bank.
© 2007 The San Diego Union-Tribune