John Kerry needs to understand day-to-day life in the West Bank is there is to be any hope of peace

The state of roads in the West Bank tells you everything you need to know about the possibility of Middle East peace, writes Nabila Ramdani.

 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. 
This is our land: peeking at a new settlers' commune in East Jerusalem. Photograph: Lior MIzrahi/Getty Images/

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at