Route 443 opens to Palestinians

By
May 28, 2010 06:03

Only a few choose to drive on road, but Israelis still fearful.




Ramallah sign

Ramallah sign 311. (photo credit:Tovah Lazaroff)

A crow could fly to Ramallah, but for Palestinians, the black and white sign to the city, which hangs off a metal pole on Route 443 by Camp Ofer, leads nowhere.

The much-anticipated opening of Route 443 to vehicles with Palestinian license plates on Friday at 8 a.m. – something that had not happened since 2002 – did nothing to change that. As a result, very few Palestinians chose to drive on it that day.

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The Association for Civil Rights in Israel might have won a two-year court battle to place the Palestinians on the highway that cuts through 17 kilometers of the West Bank and links Jerusalem with the Tel Aviv road, but December’s judicial victory against what Palestinians have termed “the apartheid road” did not give them the one thing they most wanted: quick access to Ramallah, where they receive essential services.

Now that the deadline is up – the court gave the IDF five months to prepare the road – Palestinians worry that the security checks and circuitous traffic patterns from the creation of two entry points and four exit ones will render the road useless to them.

Israeli motorists, parliamentarians and regional leaders are also unhappy. They fear an increase in traffic jams and accidents, as well as a spike in incidents of Palestinians throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at passing cars.

Worse, they are afraid of fatal terror attacks, such as those that killed six Israeli motorists on the West Bank stretch of 443 during the first two years of the intifada – acts that caused the IDF to ban Palestinians from the road in the first place.

Military sources told The Jerusalem Post the IDF still believed it would be safer to keep Palestinians off the road, but that the court had ruled against it.

As a result, after spending more than NIS 30 million, military sources said, the road will be opened in accordance with the dictates of the court ruling. They were fairly blunt about the fact that their mandate was merely to allow local Palestinian traffic on Route 443, not to turn it into a thoroughfare to Ramallah.

Military sources said the IDF had spent NIS 160m. on alternative roads for Palestinian motorists only, on which there were no security checks or soldiers, to ensure that they could travel between the area villages and Ramallah.

Before 2002, travel time from area Palestinian villages to Ramallah was roughly 20 to 30 minutes.

Palestinians say that without the 443, it takes an hour to arrive at the large West Bank city, even though a paved road off of Route 443 by the Camp Ofer junction could get them there within 10 minutes.

Under the new traffic plan, however, the IDF will stop Palestinian cars at a new three-lane checkpoint set up on Route 443 just 1 km. away from the Ramallah exit.

Even if Palestinians could turn left at the exit, their way would be barred within minutes by the Beitunya checkpoint, which is open only to Israeli commercial trucks that deliver goods to Ramallah. Israeli motorists are stopped there are well, because from that point on, the road is under the Palestinian Authority’s control.

Palestinians can’t go there because the IDF believes it is a security risk to allow them passage through Beitunya. The High Court of Justice, in its December ruling, upheld the IDF’s decision.

It’s a stance that ACRI has bitterly attacked.

“Without the opening of the Beitunya crossing, Route 443 effectively cannot be used by the very population for which it was built,” said ACRI spokeswoman Melanie Takefman.

She added that the IDF had rendered the court’s ruling “almost meaningless” and negated its central principle that Palestinians had the right to use a road that was built on land Israel had expropriated from them.

For Palestinians who want to travel on it anyway, there are four options. Each one involves entering Route 443 from the Palestinian village of Beit Sira at the Maccabim checkpoint, just as cars en route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem cross into the West Bank.

After spending time waiting at the newly installed two-lane checkpoint, Palestinians can drive 4 km. down 443 and then exit onto back roads that go under the highway and link on the other side with an alternative route to Ramallah for Palestinians only, known as the Fabric of Life road.

Another option is for Palestinians to continue down the 443 another 6 km., 10 km. from their Beit Sira entry point, and exit at At Tira.

Here they have two options. They can head to Ramallah through back roads that take them under 443 and then link them with the Fabric road; or, in a drive that takes nine minutes without traffic, they can cross over 443 by way of a small bridge that has a single lane on either side.

In the latter case, they would continue back the way they had just come, on a small road that would take them by the Beit Horon settlement and back out onto the 443 by way of the small road that settlers use to enter and exit their homes. Palestinians would then drive another 2 km. on Route 443, exit at Beit Ur al-Fauqa and connect with the Fabric road.

The last option is for the Palestinian motorist to drive the full 13-km. stretch of 443 that is open to them, from Beit Sira until the new Camp Ofer checkpoint. Here, after spending time going through the checkpoint, they can make a U-turn and drive back along Route 443, 7 km. in the opposite direction, and exit at Beit Ur. Driving in an S-pattern, they would then link up with the Fabric road, which would take them those 7 km. back in the direction of Ramallah.

On the return trip, Palestinians would enter 443 by Beit Ur, travel 6 km. down the road and exit to Beit Sira right before the Maccabim checkpoint. They can also make a U-turn at this point and drive back down 443, to the Kharbata or At Tira exit.

A few problems with the new traffic plan

To the casual motorist, there are two points in the plan that appear problematic for traffic safety.

The first is at the new Camp Ofer checkpoint on the side of the road close to the Givat Ze’ev settlement, where Palestinian motorists would be pushing out into high-speed traffic after making their U-turn.

The second problem spot is by the Maccabim checkpoint, where Palestinians enter the lineup of cars continuing to Tel Aviv. But just before they hit the actual checkpoint, they have to either turn left, jutting across the incoming traffic to get to the Beit Sira exit, or make a U-turn into that traffic.

There is no traffic light at this point. The white arrow pointing left, which is painted onto the pavement, is faded.

Military sources said they had plans to ensure vehicle safety at these points, but none of them were apparent Thursday, just one day before the opening.

The sources did note that an issue that still needed work was the road from the back end of Givat Ze’ev, where a new haredi neighborhood is being built. To prepare for Palestinian traffic on 443, the IDF has blocked off that road until it can work out a plan to allow the residents to exit, and at the same time bar Palestinians from entering.

The Knesset Economic Affairs Committee on Monday said it felt the plans for Palestinian traffic were incomplete. It urged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to delay the opening.

“The IDF should be honest about the fact that it is not ready to open the road on Friday,” said MK Yariv Levin (Likud), who lives in the city of Modi’in. Modi’in is located off the 443, within the pre-1967 border.

But ready or not, Palestinians plan to drive on the road Friday morning.

Beit Sira Council member Faruk Ankawi told the Post, “I will be the first in line.”

The delay to Ramallah has made it hard for people to get to the hospital in emergencies, hold down jobs or study in the city. Ankawi clocks an hour from his house to Ramallah, and he does not believe entry to 443 will ease his travel time.

“But you have to go onto the road to make a statement that this is our road,” said Ankawi.

AP contributed to this report.


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