Palestinians sue for use of road built for them

The Baltimore Sun

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.

For nearly 20 years, Highway 443 transformed the Palestinian communities, providing them quick access to Jerusalem and Ramallah and encouraging local commerce.

"I took 14 or 15 minutes to go to and come from Ramallah. It used to be that you could start smoking a cigarette in Ramallah and you would finish it in Beit Sira," recalled Hamad Hamdan, a local council member in Beit Sira.

By that measure, a Palestinian traveler would burn through several cigarettes making the trip from one city to the other today, a bone-rattling journey over potholed back roads. It takes an hour or more.

Directing his four-wheel-drive truck down a narrow, twisting road, Ali Abu Safia, the head council member of Beit Sira, offered a tour of the alternative route to Ramallah. Gripping the steering wheel, he turned around a bend on the outskirts of his village and squeezed his car into a crudely constructed one-lane tunnel, blaring his horn to warn oncoming traffic and pedestrians. He climbed up on the other side to a rutted road that wiggles its way toward Jerusalem. During the winter months, these roads often become impassable.

Then Abu Safia turned around and drove down Beit Sira's main street to show the smooth, well-paved road that leads to 443, where Israeli motorists sped past. At the junction where the road meets the highway, there are two dozen concrete cubes, pushed into place by Israeli authorities in 2000 to block the highway to Palestinian traffic.

"It's killing me from the inside that they took our land, uprooted our trees and built a road on our land and then we are not allowed to use it," says Abu Safia, who has watched his village's economy crumble during the past seven years.

The once-busy florists and restaurants in Beit Sira frequented by Israeli and Palestinian drivers have gone out of business. Other residents have abandoned their homes in the village and moved to Ramallah to avoid the commute. When there are emergencies, it is often difficult to get help in this now-remote village.

It's a lesson that Abu Safia learned firsthand last month when his house caught fire. He immediately called the fire department in Ramallah, a 15-minute drive away on 443. But because the firefighters used back roads, it took more than an hour. Most of his home's interior had been blackened and burned when they arrived.

Residents here reject Israeli claims that the Palestinian villages living alongside 443 are responsible for attacks against Israeli drivers.

If Israel wants security, residents argue, Israel should allow them to drive on the highway. No Palestinians would throw stones or shoot at a road used by other Palestinians, they say.

Nitsana Darshan Leitner, director of the Israel Law Center, an organization that assists victims of Palestinian violence that is also helping to defend the state against the petition, balked at their claim.

"That's ridiculous, because Palestinians don't care about themselves. They don't care about their brothers. When they blow up a bus in Jerusalem, many times there are Arabs using the bus. They don't care," she said.

Aref Engawi, a taxi driver in Beit Sira who used to spend his days sharing 443 with Israelis, sees things differently. Israelis and Palestinians should be able not only to drive together but also to live together.

"What Israelis say is not true. An Israeli can go into our village in an Israeli-plated car, and it's no problem. He would find plenty of people willing to help him," he said.

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