West Bank Route May Open, but Not to Peace

ROUTE 443, Occupied West Bank – Just beyond the main Israeli checkpoint, 10 kilometers short of Jerusalem, a white Nissan station wagon is abruptly edging to the side of the road. It comes to a halt on the shoulder.

Four Orthodox Jews clamber out and gather around the mound at the side of the road. In turn, each cups his hands and drinks from the small spring that trickles out of the rock.

A decade ago, Jewish and Muslim believers would gather in unison to break their journey at the little spring, to say a prayer on the waters which Holy Land traditions hold holy.

But a decade ago, the Intifada burst the last dam of the fake coexistence that sometimes used to put Israelis and Palestinians in the same spot.

Route 443 is a major access highway Israel built during the "peace years" of the 1990s to link the coastal plain to Jerusalem. But 11 kilometers of the trunk road run through the occupied West Bank, another five through the outskirts of occupied East Jerusalem.

In 2002, at the height of the Palestinian uprising, the Israeli military barred all Palestinian traffic on the road.

A few months earlier, Palestinian gunmen had ambushed and killed five Israelis on the road. The Israeli army retaliated by closing the road to all Palestinians, drivers and pedestrians alike. Huge boulders were erected between the highway and the small roads that lead to Palestinian villages nestling alongside.

Since then, traffic between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem has grown extensively.

Route 443 is now a major alternative road for Israeli drivers seeking to escape the congestion on the main highway. Some 40,000 Israeli vehicles travel it daily.

Now, after a two-year hearing, the Israeli Supreme Court has revoked the blanket ban on Palestinians traveling or walking on 443.

In a 2-1 decision, the justices ruled that banning Palestinian traffic was "unauthorized and disproportional." Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch stressed that "freedom of movement constitutes a basic liberty, and it is a duty to undertake all necessary measures in order to preserve it in territory held by Israel."

The court gave the military five months to come up with "another means" of ensuring the security of Israelis while allowing "broad Palestinian use" of the road.

Israeli legal experts interpret the court’s decision as meaning that not every Palestinian can "reasonably" be considered a "security risk" and that, while security considerations are legitimate, an alternative must be found to simply shutting the road off to all Palestinians.

The court’s decision has been hailed by liberal Israelis.

Ha’aretz, the Tel Aviv daily, calling it "one of the most correct and just decisions the court has made in recent years," declared that "the barring of Palestinians from route 443 is one of the ugliest aspect of a deluxe Occupation. Real security," said the paper’s editorial, "cannot be achieved by road blocks, fences, and separate roads, but only by a fair peace that will bring an end to the occupation."

Right-wing politicians slammed the court. Knesset member Uri Ariel of the National Union Party, part of the governing coalition, had this carping comment: "Once more, it’s proof that the security of Israelis is worth less than the traveling comfort of Arabs."

In fact, for the Palestinian villagers living alongside 443, the ban is a major impediment in daily life. For instance, children going to the al-Tira village school must take a major roundabout way on foot and go through a dark, dank tunnel.

Limor Yehuda is a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which introduced the petition to the court on behalf of the 22 Palestinian villages whose land was expropriated for the road. After last week’s ruling, she voiced "hope that the court will now address all segregated roads in the West Bank."

A dual road system has been in operation in the West Bank following the 1993 Oslo peace accords as a way of assuaging the concern of Israeli settlers that they would come under attack from Palestinians traveling along "their" roads.

But what is perceived by a majority of Israelis as a path-blazing concession to the Palestinians may simply translate into yet another dead-end in the long occupation.

Another hearing before a final implementation of the court’s ruling may be sought before an extended panel of judges, and legal experts say court President Beinisch will be hard pressed to find enough colleagues to agree with her ruling to lift the ban.

Civil rights activists note also that the official in the State Prosecution Office who has been charged by the court with overseeing implementation of its ruling has a proven track record of burying similar decisions and official reports that were unacceptable to the settlers or the military.

They note, too, that the flexible language used in the ruling opens the way for the army to seek additional time and strictures to prepare a new security system.

Driving 443 through the suburbs of East Jerusalem and down through the rocky Judean Hills to the coast lining the road, one sees – sometimes on both sides – an array of electronic fences, eight-meter high concrete slabs, and watchtowers. Part of that infrastructure is integrated into Israel’s controversial "Security Wall."

The attempt is clearly to give drivers the feeling that the route is an integral part of Israel. The Wall, for instance, has here undergone a cosmetic facelift, with wide spreads of murals depicting bright pastoral scenes.

They serve also to hide the minarets of village mosques, leaving Israeli motorists with the sense that they are traveling a border road inside Israel, not a road that actually encroaches into the future Palestinian state.

They’re wrong, says columnist Gideon Levy: "An apartheid road? What are you talking about? It’s just a freeway to our capital – that’s how we like it. As if we’re speedily bypassing an occupation that simply isn’t there. This highway fulfills another secret national wish – that the Palestinians just get out of our hair."

Yet, in one sense, the court ruling does blaze a new path.

In contrast to the debate which has raged for many years outside Israel, only now are mainstream Israelis being forced to relate to the question of whether theirs is indeed drifting into an apartheid state.

An overwhelming majority would contend that Israel itself is demonstratively not.

The implications of segregated 443, however, are making even those Israelis who are generally oblivious to the occupation recognize that the apartheid conditions that prevail in the occupied Palestinian lands could gradually creep in to affect the tenor of life in Israel itself.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.