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Sharing a West Bank highway proves a tall order for Israel, Palestinians

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 26, 2010; A09

BEIT UR AL-TAHTA, WEST BANK -- For eight years, Israeli commuters have whizzed between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on Highway 443, a road whose West Bank portion is lined with barriers, off-limits to Palestinians who live along the way.

Naji Suliman, mayor of the Palestinian community of Beit Ur al-Tahta, thought that would change after a decision by Israel's Supreme Court calling for the ban on Palestinians to be lifted by May. Then, after meeting with an Israeli military commander last week, Suliman concluded that Israel's actions came "just for public relations."

To comply with the court ruling, the military plans to create only two entry points within nine miles, and Palestinians would be subject to searches. There are no plans to reopen an artery linking the highway to the commercial hub of Ramallah, which Suliman said is the main reason his residents want access.

The debate over Highway 443 illustrates a fundamental rub in the West Bank: If the Israelis and Palestinians can't agree over how to share nine miles of pavement, how will they ever resolve the far more complex issues that divide them?

From an Israeli viewpoint, allowing Palestinians on the road increases the risk of violence and adds traffic. To Palestinians, the road is another example of Israel's reluctance to make life easier for them in occupied areas.

"The moment you allow people who can harm us free access to this road, it's terrible for us," said Dina Yaakov-Yan, a 24-year-old Israeli student hitching a ride along Highway 443.

"I know that in the Israeli eyes it's very acceptable to say that it's a security problem," said Limor Yehuda, the civil rights lawyer who filed the initial court petition on behalf of the Palestinians. "But it's not a security problem. It's an economic and transportation issue."

In a written appeal to the Justice Ministry on Sunday, Yehuda described the access plan as a "huge disappointment" and asked the authorities to open all entry and exit points and facilitate access to Ramallah.

Highway 1, the main route from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, can be a traffic nightmare during rush hour. Highway 443, a major chunk of which cuts through Palestinian lands in the West Bank, eases congestion by drawing roughly 40,000 commuters each day.

In the 1980s, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that in order to expropriate Palestinian land for the construction of Highway 443, the road had to serve the needs of the local Palestinian population. Under rules of occupation, Israel couldn't seize Palestinian land and build a road exclusively for Israelis, it said.

After it was finished, Israelis and Palestinians managed to share the road mostly in peace until the outbreak in 2000 of what's known as the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, when deadly attacks on Israeli motorists began. The road was completely closed to Palestinians in 2002.

The high court in its recent ruling left it to the Israeli army to decide on access arrangements. It didn't require the army to open the artery to Ramallah. Without it, the highway is largely a road to nowhere for Palestinians.

A few Palestinians will use the road "to make a point," said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli army's central command. Beyond that, he said, "we don't expect to see a great increase in traffic. They won't want to go through the checkpoints."

Still, many in Israel worry about traffic. "If drivers don't feel safe on the road, the alternative is Route 1. If the truck drivers will feel uncomfortable in terms of security, we'll have to deal with them on Route 1. What this means is a total collapse of Route 1," Yishai Talor, a Transportation Ministry official, told a legislative committee.

Israel finished alternative roads last year for Palestinians, which the army says are adequate. Palestinians, however, complain about floods, circuitous routes and lengthier travel times -- it takes an hour instead of 15 minutes to get to Ramallah. The increased transportation costs for Palestinians have also hurt the local economy.

Because of all this, Yehuda, the civil rights lawyer, celebrated in December when the court agreed that blocking Palestinian access to the road was beyond the military commander's authority.

Her elation has since turned to disappointment.

The way the army is implementing the court's decision shows "the farce of the rule of law when it comes to the occupied territories and the inability of the legal system to give real redress to people's claims," Yehuda said.

"We give these people no hope and no ability to be able to safeguard their rights," she said, "so what options do we leave them with?"

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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