Israeli road divides hills, people Bypass: Palestinian drivers are banned from using an eight-mile stretch of highway that opened last month. The Israeli military says the road offers security. Protesters call it "an apartheid road."

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- A new highway that links Jerusalem to Jewish settlements on the West Bank is an engineering and political first. It boasts the first highway tunnel through the Judean Hills, the highest bridge in the region -- and a ban on travel by Palestinians.

Israelis can use the highway, a $42 million project that was completed last month. But Palestinian drivers cannot.


The road is called Route 60, and an eight-mile section offers Jewish settlers a faster route to Jerusalem. They can bypass Bethlehem and a Palestinian refugee camp called Daheisha, formerly a launching point for Palestinians who aimed stones at Israeli vehicles.

When the road opened, Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint prevented cars driven by Palestinians from entering the tunnel. The policy "was done out of consideration for security," says a spokesman for the Israeli military, which patrols this and many other roads in the West Bank.


But one man's security is another man's prison.

"This is an apartheid road," says Mossi Raz of Peace Now, an Israeli group that protested the opening of the road. "This road is only for Jews."

Khalil Tafugji, a Palestinian land planner, says the Israeli strategy is to "cantonize" Palestinian communities of the West Bank and surround them with Jewish settlements and roads.

"It's not about 'faster' or 'easier,' " he says.

Roads have been one of the tools for increasing the Jewish presence in the West Bank, where Jewish settlements generally offer cheaper, more spacious housing than Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Roads became even more important after the start of the Palestinian uprising in 1987, when Israeli cars and soldiers became targets of Palestinians throwing stones.

Cars here have nationalities, signaled by the color of their license plates. No one -- neither soldier nor pedestrian nor stone-thrower -- need talk to a driver to know where the driver is from.

For Palestinians living on the West Bank, license plates are blue. If they live in the Gaza Strip, their plates are white. Israeli? The plates are yellow, whether you are in Israel proper or a settlement.

Route 60 was the brainstorm of Ariel Sharon, a former defense minister and general. In 1986 he was housing minister and wanted above all else to increase the Jewish presence in the West Bank, territory Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.


Sharon, of the right-wing Likud party, began the planning for the road. The left-of-center Labor Party led by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres oversaw most of the construction. And Sharon, once again in the Cabinet, this time as a member of the Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, showed up for the dedication.

Route 60 cuts through a landscape of rolling hills and olive groves. It begins at the southeastern edge of Jerusalem and travels through two tunnels. The road crosses over a bridge to the south side of Bethlehem and a corridor of 10 Jewish settlements known as Gush Etzion, which includes Efrat. It continues to Hebron, reducing to 20 minutes a journey that once took 35 minutes.

"The Israelis still hold the same old concept and attitude. They behave as if they are the lords of the land and the masters of the land," says Salah Ta'mari, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Bethlehem. "I'm afraid Israel is the avant-garde of racism."

To get to Jerusalem, Palestinians must travel old Bethlehem Road through Bethlehem. Drivers have to pass military checkpoints, and the traffic is limited because of the months-old closure imposed by the Israelis after terrorist attacks earlier this year. The closure permits travel to Jerusalem only by those Palestinians who hold a valid work permit -- about 30,000 people.

Majid Abu Mardin -- who lives in a town called Beit Jala, at one entrance to the tunnel -- found a way around the latest manifestation of Jewish-Arab tensions. On a recent evening, with the sky darkening, he was waiting at the tunnel exit for furniture to be loaded into his van, which bears the blue Palestinian plates. The furniture had been hauled from Jerusalem and through the tunnel in a truck that bore yellow Israeli plates.

It's a scene repeated daily.


"For me it's forbidden to enter the tunnel," he says. "We have a lot of people that have the same problem."

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the Labor government Cabinet minister who oversaw Route 60 construction, says the idea was to bypass troublesome areas and avoid Arab-Israeli clashes. He says that the ban on Palestinian traffic is the policy of the new Likud government.

The road "can't be hermetically sealed," says a defense official, who asked not to be identified. "It's to limit options, not to totally prevent them.

"If you had a truck exploding in the tunnel, it can cause a huge amount of trouble. If it happens on an open road, you close the hole and you're finished. If there is an attack in the tunnel, there is no place to escape. You're like a sitting duck."

Meron Benvenisti, author of a comprehensive survey of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, says roads like this don't represent security:

"If the Jews are willing to invest such large sums of money just to flee Arabs, it's a clear sign of fear," Benvenisti wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz after the opening of the road. "The Jews are proud of the grandiose architectural feats, but the bridges and tunnels were created only to disconnect them from the landscape and leave it in the hands of the Arabs.


"One cannot let go of the feeling that the planners of the road treated the landscape as an area from which we must be disconnected at any price -- and rape it to suit the needs of the road -- which have one single goal: to get to your destination, a Jewish settlement, quickly and safely."

Settlers from Gush Etzion say they appreciate the convenience of the new road. "Outstanding," says Shilo Gall, chairman of the Gush Etzion Regional Council.

Pinchas Wallerstein, a leader in the settlers movement, says he has driven the road behind cars with blue license plates. He and other settlers prefer to have mixed traffic on the road.

"We would rather move around with Arabs," says Gall of Gush Etzion. "They will think three times before throwing a stone because it may also hit their vehicles."

Pub Date: 10/28/96