by Akiva Eldar, September 26th
The masses of Israelis who regularly travel to Jerusalem via Modi’in are familiar with the large cement cubes near the signs that indicate the approach roads to the Palestinian villages on either side of the main road known as Highway 443. Anyone who bothers to look to the sides will be able to see, beyond the cubes, at the side of the ride, cars bearing Palestinian Authority license plates. Those who have sharp eyes will be able to descry the passengers climbing up and down the hills.
Few are aware that for six years now, ever since the outbreak of the intifada, the highway has been serving Israelis only. Palestinians are forbidden to travel even along the segment that is nine and a half kilometers long and passes through West Bank territory, including lands that have been confiscated and where trees have been cut down “for public needs.” Israel Defense Forces soldiers ensure that only lucky people who have been granted a temporary permit can enjoy the shortcut.
Now it emerges that there is no order that can give legal validity to discrimination among travels according to nationality. In reply to a question from Haaretz, the IDF Spokesman has confirmed that “in light of the many security risks and threats to traffic on Highway 443 in recent years, it was decided in the Israel Defense Forces Central Command to close several approach roads that connect directly from the village expanse to the highway.” At the same time, the spokesman stresses that “no order has been issued that prohibits travel on the highway,” and in any case, “there is no prohibition on the part of the IDF regarding Palestinian traffic on the segment of the highway located in the territories of the Judea and Samaria [West Bank] area.” Nevertheless, in the same statement in which it is claimed that “there is no prohibition regarding Palestinian traffic on the Palestinian segment of the road,” it is also stated that because of the security risks, some of the approach roads that link the villages to the highway are closed “permanently.”
According to the statement, some of the other roads are open and “are closed in accordance with the assessment of the security situation.”
Attorney Limor Yehuda of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), who is preparing a petition to the High Court of Justice on the matter, sees the situation differently. According to her, most of the roads are usually closed, and from time to time special permission to use the road is given to a limited number of cars. Some of the approach roads have been blocked with boulders, others with concrete barriers, and there are those that have been closed with iron gates. A Palestinian driver who is caught on the road can expect a lengthy delay, a warning and a scare, and sometimes even the confiscation of the keys to the vehicle and also harsher sanctions. Last May ACRI applied to the GOC Central Command, Yair Naveh, on behalf of the heads of the village councils of Beit Sira, Beit Likiyeh, Hirbet al-Masbah, Beit ‘Ur al Tahta, Beit ‘Ur al Fuqa and Tsaffeh. Yehuda noted that Highway 443 is the main approach road that links the 25,000 inhabitants of the six villages to the main city in the area, Ramallah, and serves as a link among these villages.
A month later people from the Civil Administration came to the village of Beit Sira and proposed to the council head, ‘Ali Abu Tsafya, that transit permits be granted to a number of taxi owners from the village. He insisted that the highway be opened to all of the inhabitants of the village, as had been the case in the past. The visitors promised to organize a meeting with one of the responsible senior officers. Since then no one has called and Major General Naveh has not replied to the letter.
Yehuda wrote that following the blockage of the approach to the highway, the inhabitants have had to use back roads, some of them dirt roads, that pass through the villages and wind through the narrow lanes. As a result of this, trips in the area have become prolonged, dangerous and costly. Instead of a trip of a quarter of an hour in comfortable conditions on Highway 443 from the village of Beit Sira to Betunya and from there to Ramallah, the inhabitants have to wind their way along dirt roads that become impassable on winter days. The cost of the trip has more than doubled and many of the inhabitants of the villages are unable to bear the costs.
This is not a matter of preventing Palestinians from entering territories on the Israeli side of the Green Line (the pre-Six Day War border), but rather of a road that is located entirely in the area of the West Bank. At the two entrances to the territory of the state of Israel there are roadblocks that are permanently manned by soldiers (the Maccabim roadblock and the Atarot Junction roadblock). When lands of the six villages were confiscated in the 1980s and the 1990s, it was explained to the inhabitants that widening the road was essential for the needs of the inhabitants of the entire area. Including their needs, of course. In response to the petition to the High Court of Justice concerning the confiscation of lands for purposes of paving a road in the Ramallah area, the state argued that the planning “took into account the conditions and needs of the area and not only Israel’s conditions and needs.” Based on that principled commitment, Justice Aharon Barak rejected the petition in September 1983, and issued a ruling in principle that the rules of international public law grant the right to a military government to infringe on property rights if a number of conditions are fulfilled. The first of these conditions: “The step is taken for the benefit of the local population.”