Posted by: Lister | January 3, 2008

Highway 443 – Israel’s forbidden road

Donald Macintyre reports from Beit Sira:

As the home-bound workers with permits start arriving at the barrier, a Jewish woman is negotiating beside her parked car with a young Arab seamstress from the village over how fast she can embroider a dress for her clothing business in the orthodox religious Israeli community of Bnei Brak. “I come here because its 200 per cent cheaper,” explains the woman, who gives her name only as Naomi. As she talks, an Israeli police van pulls up, its blue light flashing, with two brothers arrested that afternoon in Tel Aviv for working in Israel without a permit.

The older brother Walid, 53, is a veteran illegal worker, […] “I will go back to Tel Aviv tomorrow,” he says defiantly.

But it is the highway itself that underlines the separation between Israelis and Palestinians here. For Naomi it is a supremely fast and convenient route to a meeting with her workers. Palestinians, like Walid face a fine for even walking on or across it, let alone driving on it. For while this stretch passes straight through the West Bank, only Israelis are actually allowed to use it. Tens of thousands do so every day.

[…] For the Israeli motorists who already use it it is a harmless and convenient way of cutting journey times. But for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel the prohibition on Palestinian use of the road is “an extreme and grave example” of what it calls “the State of Israel’s publicly declared policy of separation and [illegal] discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin in territories under its control.”

Until 2002, 443 was the main artery connecting the seven villages along the road with each other, with much of their farmland, and with Ramallah, the city to which the 37,000 villagers have long looked as the city they visited for work, for shopping, for medical, especially hospital, services and to visit relatives and friends.

Before the intifada, the Israeli authorities, seeking an alternative route to the rapidly expanding dormitory town of Modiin, and to relieve congestion on Route 1 the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, began the process of widening the road, using some privately owned Palestinian land in the process. The Israeli Supreme Court had approved the land requisition more than a decade earlier on the understanding that the widening would benefit local Palestinians as well as Israelis. Five years ago, however – after of a series of attacks, including, in the first years of the intifada, shooting attacks, on Israeli motorists – the military closed off all the feeder roads to 443 from the Palestinian villages alongside it.

Israel argues that the prohibition is needed to guarantee the Israeli users of the road security. But another Israeli human rights organisation, Btselem, while recognising Israel’s duty to keep its citizens safe, said the blanket prohibition “appears to be based on extraneous reasons, the most important being Israel’s desire to annex, de facto, the area along which the road runs.” It added: “If Israel were only interested in protecting the lives of Israelis using the road, without annexing the area, it could limit or even prohibit the travel of Israelis on the road, and build other roads and provide other means of transportation to connect Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”

The military has built three “fabric of life” roads for Palestinians – again confiscating Palestinian land to do so – which link the villages with a winding, badly worn, single track route to Ramallah and which the military says are kept under review but “adequately and fully address the traffic needs of the Palestinians in the area.” The mayor of Beit Sira, Ali Abu Safa, says they create a journey of between 60 and 90 minutes to the city compared with the 12 minutes it took when they used 443.

Mr abu Safa, 51, points out that this is rather more than a tiresome inconvenience. “There is no point in calling an ambulance if someone is sick because it will take more than an hour to arrive,” he says. The mayor claims that several villagers have died on the long journey to hospital by private car, the latest, four months ago, a 10-year-old boy from Beit Sira called Ahmed Yusef Ali, who had been badly injured in a road accident.

Patients from the village needing dialysis, he says, pay 150 shekels – or just under £19 – three times a week for a taxi to the city. Students in further or higher education need to pay a daily 20 shekels on a “service” minibus to Ramallah and back. “If a man has five children that means 100 shekels a day or 3,000 a month,” says Mr abu Safa, who claims that “80 per cent of students do not go to the universities because there is no money”.

The economic impact has certainly been severe. Mr abu Safa, who is a construction contractor, says that the cost of a truckload of aggregate has risen from 350 shekels a day to 1,200 because “of the route they have to take”. And then there is the impact on businesses that were dependent on Israeli customers who – ironically – cannot now reach them because of the concrete blocks and iron gates shutting the side roads off 443. The human rights organisation Btselem has calculated that more than 100 small shops have shut along the route since the closures, “among them floor-tile establishments, flower shops, furniture stores, and restaurants”. In an area famous for its tiles, 67-year-old Ali Al Ori’s $4m (£2m) tile factory and warehouse used to employ 40 workers and turn over a million shekels to Israeli customers alone because it was just three minutes’ journey from the main road.

“Now that figure is zero,” says Mr Ori, 67, who employs just six workers serving a sporadic local market.

[…] Yusef Mohammed Yusef,61, one of Beit Sira’s former mukhtars like his father before him, claims the British mandate government used local Palestinian labour to build the old road that is now 443 “without wages”. He adds: “My father helped to build this road. Now we can’t use it and it takes us an hour and a half to get to Ramallah. It’s unbelievable.”

[…] The last shooting –which killed three Israelis – was in August 2001. Since then, however, there have been sporadic throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails, with three Israelis injured and 13 cars damaged since August 2007.

Because the road passes directly through the occupied West Bank, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel argues that it is the military commander’s “primary duty” to enable the local population to use the road. “Only once this duty has been fulfilled, may the military commander allow Israelis to use the road as well, once he has solved the problem of providing them with the proper protection.”

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