Palestinan road to nowhere

JERUSALEM — Highway 443 is about 15.5 miles long, nine miles of which run through the West Bank — Palestinian territory. An estimated 40,000 cars ply the highway daily, all of them Israeli.

A year and a half ago, Nabil Mohammad Alkawi, 36, brought a white truck filled with chocolate to the edge of the village of Beit Sira, alongside the highway. On what used to be an on-ramp, today there is a sprawling parking lot. At night, the lot fills with Alkawi’s customers — workers who arrive as early as 2:30 a.m. to trudge across the nearby Modi’in checkpoint into Israel.

Alkawi can run a snack truck on this former onramp because for the last eight years, Highway 443, the main artery to Ramallah, Jerusalem and the city of Modi’in, has been closed to Palestinian traffic. The army closed the road after six Israelis died from terrorist attacks on Highway 443 in the first two years of the Second Intifada.

The Beit Sira ramp was blocked with giant boulders; other villages in the area are similarly closed off with three-foot high concrete blocks, metal gates or garbage.

Now, an Israeli High Court of Justice has ordered that the Israeli army open the road to Palestinians within five months.

“Despite understanding the security needs, security means like these, which create complete separation between different populations on the roads and which prevent an entire population from using the road, engender a sense of inequality,” wrote Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch in a concurring opinion in late December.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel brought the case in 2007 on behalf of Beit Sira and five other villages cut off from the road. Melanie Takefman, a spokeswomen for ACRI, hailed the decision:

“The closure of the road has only done harm to the local population and has not increased security,” Takefman said, adding that she hopes the ruling will set a precedent for an additional 37 miles of roads closed to Palestinian traffic.

Attorney Nitzana Darshan-Leitner lives in Hashmonaim, a settlement of 2,600 just over the Green Line. She represented 120 drivers from the area in the court case, and she said she rides Highway 443 every day.

“We don’t have any intention to infringe on the rights of the Palestinians, but we can’t stand by when we see Jewish blood is being spilled,” said Darshan-Leitner. “And there is a solution. The IDF is asking to use it, and the court isn’t letting them.”

Highway 443 originally wound through the centers of the nearby villages and connected the West Bank to Gaza. In the late 1980s, when Palestinian villagers stoned Israeli cars, Israel expropriated Palestinian land to reroute the road away from the villages. The Palestinians appealed the rerouting to the High Court, but the army convinced the court that the road was for the benefit of the local population.

The new Highway 443 became a central thoroughfare for Israel, connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem while avoiding the frequent traffic jams of the other artery, Highway 1.

This week, the Israeli Ministry of Transportation warned that opening Highway 443 to Palestinians could mean an overload on Road 1.

When the Second Intifada broke out, Highway 443 became the backdrop for gory drive-by shootings, stonings, Molotov cocktails and car bombs. One victim was Ronen Landau, 17, who was shot in the liver as his father drove him from downtown Jerusalem to their home in the Givat Zeev settlement on a balmy July evening in 2001. The army banned all Palestinians from the road the following year.

Modi’in spokesman Elad Shimonovich said that ban was direly needed.

“At night the road was nearly empty, and people had to use Highway 1,” said Shimonovich. As a 75,000-resident bedroom community, Modi’in relies on Highway 443 to connect to jobs in the nation’s capital.

Following the ruling, right-wing Knesset members announced they would propose legislation to annex Highway 443 to bypass the ruling.

Palestinian urban planner Rami Nasrallah, who works in Jerusalem and Ramallah, said the closed road created two parallel transport networks.

“One is fast, for settlers,” Nasrallah said, while the other “goes through the center of the villages, and it makes it impossible to guarantee access between towns and villages in the West Bank.”

Reopening the road will re-link West Bank villages to Ramallah; however, Jerusalem remains off-limits to Palestinians without residency permits in the capital.

In the weeks running up to the court decision, ACRI and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem mounted a public awareness campaign using an online computer game called “How democratic are we?” Players decide whether to build the road and whether to block Palestinians from driving on it.

“It’s a weird situation,” said Nasrallah, who works in Ramallah and Jerusalem. “The whole area of the West Bank is supposed to be under the Palestinian Authority… The question is how this will be used when there is a Palestinian state.”

View Larger Map