BEIT SIRA, West Bank (AP) – The Israeli military opened part of a major West Bank highway to Palestinian cars on Friday to comply with a ruling of the country’s highest court.
The road, known as Highway 443, is a major link between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and is heavily traveled by Israeli commuters.
About 12 miles (20 kilometers) of it run though the West Bank, one of the territories Palestinians and the international community say should form part of a future Palestinian state, and it was built in parts on land expropriated from the Palestinians living there.
The Israeli military, which maintains overall control of the West Bank, banned Palestinian cars from the highway in 2002, after a string of Palestinian shooting attacks there killed Israeli motorists. The military later connected some nearby Palestinian villages with alternative roads, many of them passing through tunnels underneath the highway.
The West Bank’s system of separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians has drawn sharp criticism from Palestinians and human rights groups.
In 2007, with the level of Israeli-Palestinian violence declining, local Palestinians petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court for access to the road. The court ruled the military’s sweeping closure discriminatory and ordered that a nine-mile (14 kilometer) stretch be opened to Palestinian cars, overriding the army’s argument that doing so would endanger Israelis.
Military spokesman Peter Lerner said Friday the opening complied fully with the ruling. “It is to the letter and also to the spirit” of the ruling, he said. “The spirit is to give them access, free access, and we are ensuring safety and security for all people using the road.”
But Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups say the opening falls short of making the road worth using for most Palestinian motorists. The two entrances and four exits for Palestinian cars effectively allow them to travel only on a stretch of about 6 miles (10 kilometers), and they can’t reach the city of Ramallah, the main destination for Palestinian traffic. Cars entering the roadway must pass security checks, which drivers say will lengthen drive times.
The opening has also angered Israelis, many of whom fear it will expose them to Palestinian shooting attacks similar to those that killed six Israelis on the road between 2000 and 2002.
“They are opening the road to terrorists,” said Shmuel Landau, whose 17-year-old son was shot and killed there by Palestinian gunmen in 2001. “I hope nothing will happen to anyone, but I am afraid that the court is endangering our lives and those of our children.”
Attorney Dan Yakir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which filed the court appeal on behalf of the Palestinians, said at a press conference this week that the opening could facilitate Palestinian movement between villages but won’t make it a major highway, as it is for Israelis.
Noting that the road was constructed partially on Palestinian-owned land and was supposed to benefit Palestinians, he said the only solution to any security problems would be to bar Israelis, not Palestinians, from the road.
Only about five Palestinian drivers used the road during the first two hours of the Friday opening, and only after having their engines, trunks, back seats and ID cards inspected by Israeli soldiers.
After exiting the road, driver Farouq Ankawi said the checkpoints would keep many drivers off the newly opened highway and encourage them to use the backroads. “If I want to avoid the searches, I’ll take the old road through the villages,” he said. “It’s better than going through here.”