Israeli supreme court has issued a deadline to open vital route linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to West Bank traffic - and time is running out.
Palestinians still waiting for right to use Highway 443
JERUSALEM // They start just after the Israeli checkpoint near the city of Modi'in, along this fast, scenic motorway that connects Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. All along the hilly road, vast concrete boulders, rubble heaps and piles of rubbish barricade access from several Palestinian villages. At one such barrier at the village of Beit Sira, cars with Israeli registration plates deposit groups of dusty-looking workers, who squeeze between the concrete boulders to the Palestinian cars and cabs that can take them back home.
This is how it has been for the thousands of Palestinians who have been barred access to Highway 443 since 2002. The Israeli military had cited security reasons for the closure - five Israelis were shot dead in 2001, at the height of the second intifada, and dozens more have been injured in attacks along this 28km stretch of road that cuts into the West Bank. However, in December last year, the Israeli supreme court ruled that the state had to revoke the ban and allow Palestinians access to the road within five months.
Campaigners saw the ruling as a breakthrough and a clear legal rejection of a segregated system of Israeli-only roads. But sections of Israeli society have opposed the ruling, and some of the Palestinian villagers affected hold out little hope that it ever will be implemented. "So many times, when the Israeli army says yes it means no - I have no reason to trust them now," said 32-year-old Farouk, who lives in Beit Sira. This Palestinian village, home to fewer than 3,000 people, is one of the six villages whose petition against the closure was successfully taken to court by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (Acri) and led eventually to the supreme court ruling.
One of the points raised by their petition was that the closed road policy was a form of collective punishment for the 55,000 Palestinians thought to be affected by it. "One day the army came and told us that they were taking the road away because we were making problems," said Farouk. "What problems? We never did anything - but they said that terrorists were coming from our villages onto the road."
Farouk is one of the Palestinian workers forced to navigate the roadblock by foot, queuing up to cross the Israeli checkpoint near Beit Sira in the early hours of the morning and tracing the same path back at nightfall. For those who do not hold permits to work in Israel, it is an equally roundabout daily commute to Ramallah, in the West Bank. "Once, you'd light up a cigarette and barely have time to smoke it before you'd be in Ramallah," said Aish, a 38-year-old cab driver from Beit Sira, of the short drive to the West Bank town around 20km away.
"Now, it can take an hour and a half, or more." Barred from the motorway, Palestinians have to use a winding series of inferior roads - sometimes running right underneath the 443. And it is not just their working life that is affected. "I've had women give birth in my cab, because we couldn't get to the hospital in Ramallah in time," said Aish. "And people have died on the way to hospital, because it takes too long on the roads we are allowed to use."
It is precisely such humanitarian aspects - along with the underlying concepts of a segregated road - that prompted the high court ruling over Highway 443. According to Acri, the road ban represents "a serious violation" of the basic human rights of Palestinians who used the road to get to work and school, gain access to emergency services and to maintain social and family ties. The Israeli supreme court said the ban on Palestinians using the road was "unauthorised and disproportional" and that it created a "sense of inequality and improper motives".
"It is illegal to take the resources of an occupied people and use it for the benefit of the occupiers," said Melanie Takefman, a spokeswoman for Acri, of the road built in part on land expropriated from Palestinian villages, and which cuts through a part of the occupied West Bank to connect Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a faster alternative to the clogged motorway that runs between the two cities. Highway 443 was given high court approval in the 1980s, on the understanding that it would be of primary benefit to local Palestinians - who, for those initial years, did use the road. But now for Israelis, the reopening of the road to the local Palestinian population has raised the spectre of attacks.
The latest poll conducted by the War and Peace Index showed 63 per cent of Israelis wanted the 443 to remain closed to West Bank Palestinians, while 30 per cent of those polled believed this practice to be discriminatory. Families of those killed in terrorist attacks along the 443 have made public pleas to keep the road Israeli-only, and the Israeli transport ministry recently warned that Route One, the motorway running between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, would "collapse completely" if security fears pushed Israeli drivers off the 443 and on to it.
Around 40,000 Israelis use the 443 daily, as a convenient alternative to Route One. The Israeli army has said that it is preparing to implement the supreme court ruling on Highway 443 and is engaged in "an extensive study of the actions required for the matter". At Beit Sira, many of those Palestinians taking the wearily slow route home from work wonder just how that will affect them. A report in the Jerusalem Post this week said the defence forces planned to set up another four roadblocks on 443 when it is reopened to enhance security. One of those roadblocks would be at Beit Sira.
* The National