ROUTE 443, West Bank (Reuters) - Starting Friday, Israeli troops will guard new checkpoints in the West Bank that nullify the impact of an Israeli court order allowing Palestinian drivers to use route 443.
What was hailed as a victory for justice six months ago, when a 2002 ban on Palestinian traffic was ruled illegal, now looks like sleight of hand presaging a “human rights travesty”, says the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
“Nobody really is happy with it,” says ACRI chief legal counsel Dan Yakir, who successfully argued the case on behalf of petitioning Palestinians from nearby villages while Israelis concerned about security tried to maintain the ban.
“The Palestinians are very disappointed by the fact that the road will be opened only partially,” he said. “The Israelis are unhappy with it, though I don’t think the road poses any major risk to Israelis.”
The 25 km (15 mile) four-lane, divided highway links Israel’s coastal plain with the uplands of Jerusalem. But 14 km of it run through the occupied West Bank, and for eight years it has been reserved for Israeli vehicles only.
Last December, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that keeping Palestinians off a route that was built on land confiscated from them by the occupying military power was illegal. It ordered the army to end the ban it imposed in 2002 after five Israelis were shot on the road during the Palestinian intifada (uprising).
Village spokesmen who briefed reporters on Tuesday said the ban on using 443 had tripled their travelling time to the West Bank’s main city of Ramallah, where the jobs, hospitals, banks and government offices are, for the past eight years.
Instead Palestinians had to use steep and twisting routes over the hills and through the fields.
There was no point calling an ambulance because it would take an hour to arrive, they said. Students dropped out of university because the journey time was too long and expensive. Some mothers gave birth on the way to hospital.
But the new arrangement would be no better, they said.
“The idea of the new checkpoints is to make us tired of using this route so the army can go back to court and say; See, we opened the road but they don’t use it,” said Saleh Atya.
An estimated 40,000 Israeli drivers now use Route 443 daily, many preferring its fast curves and relatively light traffic to the twisting switchback of the main Highway 1 from Tel Aviv, which can be choked to a standstill at peak hours.
As of this weekend, cars with green-on-white Palestinian plates will mix in traffic on 443 with black-on-yellow Israeli plates, but only up to a point.
Before they can reach Jerusalem or Ramallah they must turn off Route 443.
Work crews were this week putting the finishing touches to a three-lane checkpoint astride the eastbound highway, so Israeli troops can slow down and inspect vehicles to ensure no Palestinian without a permit crosses the line.
Checkpoints were also being completed at two new entry ramps Israel has opened onto the road, and concrete roadblocks, steel gates and earthen berms have been removed from four new exit points onto existing West Bank roads long blocked off.
On both sides, two-metre (6.5 ft) high fencing lined and topped with coils of razor now frames Route 443 like bright metallic hedges, in case Palestinians try to leave the route illegally. There are tunnels of steel fencing for pedestrians at the exit and entry ramps, overlooked at two points by Israeli army watchtowers.
Palestinians say they will end up using a mere 4 km (2.5 miles) of the road between Israel’s main westbound and eastbound checkpoints, and probably not even that if it proves faster to use existing roads and tunnels under 443 rather than queue to be checked on and off it.
ACRI says the Supreme Court left open loopholes which the army drove through, respecting the letter of the law but “acting in utter disregard of the spirit of the ruling” by setting security provisions which negate the opening of 443.
This “creates the false impression of new regulations, genuine freedom of movement and adherence to the rule of law, though in fact no real change will occur,” it said.
But ACRI attorney Yakir said it was at least a start.
The irony is that when 443 was built by the military in the 1980s, the Supreme Court threw out a local challenge, accepting the state’s argument that the road was intended primarily for the benefit of the Palestinian population.
Israelis now say they will no longer feel safe using 443, if they have to share it with Palestinians who, they fear, may turn to violence against them at any time.
Some in suburban Modi’in, whose 75,000 inhabitants rely heavily on Route 443, were backing a last-minute petition to block the changes. Some were telling Israeli media they plan to switch their commute to Highway 1, just to be safe.
Editing by Diana Abdallah
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.