The ban on Palestinians using highway 443 has been lifted but sidestepped by the Israeli army. It’s bare-faced segregation
Rachel Shabi, 17 May 2010
If you didn’t have peripheral vision, it would probably be fine. If you didn’t glance to the sides of Israel’s highway 443 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, then it wouldn’t smack you in the face that the road is – how shall we put it? – segregated. As it is, you can’t help but notice that when the 443 passes by the Israeli town of Modi’in and heads east into the occupied West Bank, some of its side-routes are blocked. Concrete boulders, metal barriers, rubble and heaps of rubbish halt roads from Palestinian villages such as Beit Sira and Beit Ur al-Fuka.
And if you stop at one of those barricades, a complicated coping apparatus comes to light: cars deposit weary Palestinians who work inside Israel at these blocked routes; on the other side, lines of parked Palestinian cabs await to resume the interrupted journey home.
Palestinians without permits to work or travel inside Israel can’t be on the 443 at all. So for the 3,000 inhabitants of Beit Sira, one of six villages affected by the blocked highway, a trip to nearby Ramallah, about 12 miles away, now takes hours via minor roads that are prohibitively long, pot-holed and sometimes flooded. Some 55,000 Palestinians are thought to be affected by the road ban.
The Israeli military barred Palestinian access to this road in 2002, citing security reasons after several shootings in which five Israelis were killed. But last December, Israel’s supreme court ruled that this sweeping ban on Palestinian movement was disproportionate and that the roadblocks had to be lifted.
The court pointed out that the 443 – which cuts through the occupied West Bank for a 12-mile stretch – had only been approved during the 1980s on condition that it would be open to all. (A comic Hebrew animation explains this here.)
The army has had five months to sort it out, but that time was mostly employed by ministers to scaremonger about how an open 443 would make sitting targets of Israeli drivers, who would instantly migrate to the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem route, highway 1 – and choke it.
Now the military has unveiled its response to the court’s decision: a sort of de-block-and-re-block manoeuvre. The idea is to partially open parts of the road but to compensate that with an extra checkpoint at one end, scrutinising those Palestinians newly permitted to drive this limited section.
And so, once again, the Israeli military – the real authority in the West Bank – has shown that, unless absolutely compelled to do so, it cannot be trusted to do the right thing in the occupied territories. No matter that thousands of Palestinians who have nothing to do with any shooting or stone-throwing are denied easy access to the most basic facilities. No matter that sick patients don’t make it to hospital on time; or that Palestinians have to rise at the crack of dawn, slip through the crevices of concrete barriers and creep slowly though an Israeli checkpoint – while Israeli-plated cars breeze past – just to get to work.
And why bother getting to the bones of the issue by asking why those few Palestinians would have attacked Israeli cars whistling through the West Bank, on a road that has been dug out of occupied land, in the midst of the viciously crushed second intifada? No; far easier to completely bar Palestinian passage on this road. And when the Israeli court challenges that, just block the road in a different way and see if those pedantic judges shut up.
But could the court be disinclined to shut up on this matter? The Israeli military claims that the court knew about the partial-opening plans. Meanwhile, some 1,000 Israeli families have petitioned the court to keep the road closed because they say the army’s solution is too lax.
And the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, which filed the original petition to open the road, immediately filed another in response to army’s unblocked-but-closed policy.
It looks as though highway 443 – so often cited as a symbol of segregationist policy – might not be properly open to Palestinians in the near future. But until it is, a drive on this road feels like a fast, scenic shortcut through another people’s daily punishment.