Palestinians sue for use of road built for them

Israel has denied access over security concerns

September 16, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun foreign reporter

BEIT SIRA, West Bank -- Every day, thousands of Israeli drivers speed through the olive-tree-dotted hills and valleys of the West Bank on Highway 443, a popular four-lane roadway connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

But this convenient commuter shortcut comes at a heavy price for Palestinians.

Since the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, only Israelis have been allowed to use the highway because of security concerns - though it is built on Palestinian land and, according to Israeli courts, is meant primarily for the benefit of thousands of Palestinian villagers who live alongside it.

The ban has effectively marooned about 40,000 Palestinians living in a half-dozen villages that have long depended on the 15-mile highway. Residents complain that the closure has ruined their businesses, created frustratingly long and expensive commutes to work and school on back roads, and isolated their communities from emergency and medical services.

Now the Palestinian villagers are taking their grievances to Israel's high court, demanding that Israel reopen the road to them.

The court case, in effect, weighs the demands of an estimated 40,000 Israeli commuters, who use the road daily as a rapid thoroughfare, against the needs of about the same number of Palestinians who relied on the road for their own livelihoods.

After a string of Palestinian attacks against Israeli motorists, Israeli authorities barred Palestinians from driving or walking on 443, and they erected steel gates, concrete barriers, walls and security watchtowers to keep them out.

For seven years, Israel has sided with Israeli motorists, turning the highway into a heavily fortified corridor.

Even with the ban in place, attacks against Israelis on 443 have continued, leaving five people dead and a dozen more injured.

Attorneys representing Israeli citizen groups, who are helping to defend the Israeli government against the petition, say they fear that violence would increase if Palestinians and Israelis were allowed to drive side by side again.

"Many Israelis are going to be killed if this petition is accepted by the court. If you let Palestinians on 443, it is like giving them a ticket to enter Tel Aviv," says Ilan Tsion, an attorney and founder of Fence for Life, a grass-roots group that supports Israel's separation barrier and other Israeli security measures.

If security is the issue, Israelis - not Palestinians - should be banned from the road, says Limor Yehuda, attorney for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, which, along with six Palestinian villages, filed the petition against Israel.

"It's a road inside the West Bank, and in this sense it is outside the borders of Israel, and basically Israelis don't have a right to go there," she said. "It's the same as Israelis claiming that Palestinians don't have the right to enter Israel. The same argument should apply to Israelis [in the West Bank]."

But Israel has been reluctant to give up what has become a key artery for Israeli drivers.

"This is a road that Israel wants," Yehuda says.

The petition was filed in the Israeli high court in March, after years of complaints by Palestinian villagers. In June, the court demanded that the state justify the ban on Palestinians. In response, the Israeli government asked to continue the ban, although it offered to give special permits to allow 80 Palestinian cars - of Israel's choosing - to use the roadway, as it has in the past for a select few Palestinian drivers.

The government's proposal was swiftly rejected by the villagers.

"It's not even close to what the people need," says Yehuda. "Our argument is that every person should be allowed to use the road and should not be deprived of that because of his or her national origin."

A new court hearing is expected next month on the matter, attorneys say.

While Israel has imposed widespread restrictions on hundreds of miles of roads used by Palestinians in the West Bank, 443 is unique because it is used mainly by Israelis who don't live or work in the West Bank. Most motorists originate from Tel Aviv, Modiin or Jerusalem and prefer the direct route of 443 to the alternative, Israel's Highway 1, a frequently clogged roadway that twists and turns up to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv's coastal plain.

Climbing up the ridgeline of the Judean hills into Jerusalem, 443 follows a well-beaten path to Jerusalem dating back centuries. It became a formal road during the period of British control of Palestine (1920-1948), according to local villagers.

In the 1980s, the Israeli government confiscated land belonging to Palestinian villages to widen and straighten the roadway. The plan met resistance from Palestinians, who filed a petition to block the land seizures. In its ruling, the Israeli high court allowed the project to move forward because the road was being built primarily to serve the local Palestinian population - not the needs of Israeli citizens.

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