In Jerusalem, road project takes political turn as it cuts through Arab neighborhood

April 20, 2013

Cutting a wide swath through the stone homes and terraced olive groves of an Arab neighborhood in southern Jerusalem, a new Israeli road-building project is stirring growing discontent.

Graffiti covers metal barriers around the construction site. “Racism,” says one. “People before roads.” A black flag of protest flies from one of several houses that are yards away from the planned high-speed route.

The road under construction is an extension of a freeway across Jerusalem, linking it to an Israeli highway through the southern West Bank known as Route 60. The project has caused an uproar in Beit Safafa, a quiet, middle-class village incorporated into Jerusalem, but the local dispute has also taken on broader political implications.

City officials call the project a transport solution that will enable motorists to travel quickly from Jerusalem’s southern entrance to neighborhoods across the city and points north. But critics say the new road is meant to serve Jewish settlers from the southern West Bank, providing them speedy access to the Jerusalem freeway and onward toward Tel Aviv. Lacking access points from inside the village, the road will not serve Beit Safafa residents but only disrupt life there, according to the critics.

“This is destroying the village, slicing it up,” said Mustafa Salman, 65, as he stood near the broad trench gouged out near his house.

Beit Safafa has been divided before, straddling the 1949 armistice line that separated Israel and Jordan, but it was reunited when Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. Villagers on the Israeli side have Israeli citizenship, while those on the other have Jerusalem resident status with Israeli social and health benefits, like other Palestinians in the city.

Even as unrest has occasionally erupted in other Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Beit Safafa has remained calm, its 9,000 residents integrated seamlessly into the Jewish neighborhoods of the city, where many work.

The village lost most of its original lands to Israeli neighborhoods built nearby, including Gilo, a development on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem. Now the planned six-lane highway threatens to bisect what remains.

Naomi Tsur, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem responsible for strategic planning, said that the freeway extension was part of a decades-old road plan going back to the pre-state era, and that the artery could serve both Israeli and Palestinian commuters, including Beit Safafa residents.

“It links everything to the south with everything to the north, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Arab,” she said. “From the northern section you can also go on to Ramallah.”

But Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank block travel by most Palestinians to Jerusalem, making the new extension inaccessible to them. Under restrictions Israel says have been imposed for security reasons, only those Palestinians in the West Bank who have permits can enter the city, but not in their own cars.

Meir Margalit, an Israeli city councilman responsible for East Jerusalem, said that the freeway extension was clearly designed to accommodate commuters from Jewish settlements to the south.

“For the settlers, they’re prepared to tear a village apart,” said Margalit, a member of the leftist Meretz party. “No mayor would even think about dividing a Jewish neighborhood this way.”

Tsur said that planners had worked with residents to lessen the impact of the road, and that part of the highway would be sunken and covered with a public recreation space, including a park and sports facilities, and walls would be built to reduce noise. Bridges are also planned to allow access across the road.

Having failed to stop construction through legal action and protests outside city hall, Beit Safafa residents have petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for cancellation of the project.

Ala Salman, a neighborhood activist, argued that there was no need for the freeway extension because an existing major road built on village land already provides easy access from the south. He noted plans to build another Israeli neighborhood, Givat Hamatos, on annexed West Bank land overlooking the village, and plans for an additional major road through Beit Safafa.

“We’re a problem for them, Arabs living between Jewish areas,” Salman said. “They want us out of here.”

A silversmith who works in a Judaica arts shop in Jerusalem, Salman said that after years of close relations with Israelis — who visit Beit Safafa regularly to shop — he feared that resentment over the road project was alienating the village’s younger generation.

“There’s a sense of betrayal,” he said, noting that for the first time last month, young villagers marched and raised the Palestinian flag to mark Land Day, an annual commemoration of the killing of six Israeli Arabs in 1976 during protests over land expropriations.

“This was a message to the Israeli authorities that if they’re going to build this road, we can go back to being Palestinians, after we had avoided that word,” Salman said. “We forgot that we were Arabs, and the road has woken everybody up.”

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