Driving down highway 443 from Jerusalem to Modi’in in mid-May, the air of urgency radiating from the frenzied roadwork is inescapable. At the Mahaneh Ofer junction, no more than seven kilometers from the Jerusalem city limits, a small army of bulldozers slowly carves away the hills flanking the route, while equipment and heavy machinery collect in the median ahead of an indiscernible building project.

Slightly farther down, the fences lining the road – newly refurbished with four rows of glistening barbed wire – catch the eye. The razor-sharp scenery continues until it catches up with the teams of Palestinian laborers rushing to extend the security measure the entire length of the highway.

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And finally, there is the transformation of the access roads from obstructed reminders of the second intifada and the lethal terror attacks associated with it to a vision reflecting their original intent – that is, turnoffs connecting the highway with the neighboring Palestinian villages.

After eight years, highway 443 is once again opening to the Palestinians. And strangely enough, as it stands now, almost nobody is happy: not the Israelis who currently enjoy exclusive driving rights on the road, not the Palestinians who will be shattering that exclusivity in less than one week, not the organizations that are pitching desperate 11th-hour legal battles to alter the High Court of Justice ruling permitting the renewed access, and not the IDF which – charged with implementing the High Court’s decision – is being blamed by all sides for not adequately doing its job.

Modi’in, located immediately after the West Bank portion of highway 443 and home to the largest population of Jerusalem commuters with immediate access to the highway, provides perhaps the best measure of Israeli discontent over the situation. And it doesn’t take long to get a read of the dominant position among the residents.

“I’ll continue to ride, but I hope they don’t open it,” says Miriam Edri.

“It worries me,” says Avraham Levi as he waits for the Connex 110 bus to Jerusalem. “There were murders on that road.”

“I’m afraid,” says Ilana Levy at a different bus stop. “And a lot of my friends have told me that they’re going to stop using the road. Instead, they’ll be driving on highway 1.”

Although the city, with its idyllic tree-lined streets and wide open parks, hardly evokes thoughts of terrorism, concerns over the potential dangers resulting from opening the highway are rife. An opinion poll commissioned just two weeks ago by  Jewish legal rights institute Shurat Hadin and conducted by the Sarid Company, revealed that more than 70 percent of Israeli commuters who use the road believe that there is “a great likelihood of a terrorist attack as a result of the High Court’s decision.”

In addition, according to the poll, more than 50% of Israeli commuters said they would alter and limit their use of the highway should Palestinian cars be given access.

Alexander Bayevski represents one of the 20% of commuters who will continue to use the road despite a firm belief that his life will be in greater danger. As a resident of Beit Horon, he has no other choice. Access to and from the town is limited entirely to highway 443.

“The Palestinians have proven… that they want to hurt Israelis, and I think that they’ll try to do that,” he says. But he’ll continue driving on the road “because there isn’t another one.”

Likewise, Moshe Carmel, also a resident of Beit Horon, believes that the opening “is not at all good for us,” as it will spark “terrorist attacks.” But his family lives in Jerusalem, so that’s the road he will use.

“I think most people here think the same way,”
he adds.

Most people do indeed feel the same way, whether in Beit Horon, located in the center of the West Bank portion of the highway in Modi’in at one end of the controversial portion or in Givat Ze’ev, at the other end, closest to Jerusalem. But according to the Shurat Hadin opinion poll, there is still 30% that feel differently.

Martin Shalom is one example. Waiting for a bus to Jerusalem in Modi’in, he disputes the claim that the road will spawn an increase in terror attacks should it be opened to Palestinians.

“I don’t think that would happen,” he says. “If it did, then they’d close the highway. So why would [the Palestinians] do that?”

At the same bus stop, Erez, another commuter to Jerusalem, sidesteps the issue of terrorism by putting the concern in perspective. “The Palestinians drive on every highway in the West Bank, so why shouldn’t they drive on this one as well?” he asks.

And elsewhere along the highway, at the only felafel stand along the West Bank stretch of the road, Tzachi Gana, a Tel Aviv resident who works in Jerusalem, takes Erez’s point one step further by recalling details of what made the construction of the route possible in the first place.

“When they first paved this highway, it was also meant to be accessible by the Palestinians,” he notes.

IN FACT, it was meant to do more than that. In the 1980s, construction began to connect highway 1 at the Ben-Shemen Interchange to Givat Ze’ev, near Jerusalem. The route – ultimately named 443 – was therefore both inside and out of the Green Line. Accordingly, the portion that was in the West Bank was built in part on private and public land expropriated from Palestinians by the IDF military commander in the area.

At the time, local residents petitioned the High Court of Justice against the move, but the court ruled against them in favor of the state’s claim that the road was intended primarily for the benefit of the local Palestinian population. Indeed, far from just being accessible to the Palestinians, the benefits of the highway were meant to justify the expropriation. This detail was not overlooked on December 28, 2009, when the High Court ruled on a petition filed in 2007 by the Association for Human Rights in Israel (ACRI) against the complete ban on Palestinian traffic that had been imposed for nearly eight years.

“The additional security achieved by the total prohibition is outweighed by the total denial of the right of protected persons to travel on the highway, which was [originally] planned for their needs and paved in part on land expropriated from them,” wrote Justice Uzi Fogelman. He added that by order of the court, the road must be opened to Palestinian traffic within five months, no later than May 28, 2010.

Immediately following the ruling, Palestinians and like-minded Israelis celebrated, while many Israeli commuters and government officials condemned the decision. Local and international media captured the moment, running stories about the controversial history of highway 443, interviews with the families of those killed in terror attacks on the road, and predictions by opponents and proponents of the opening as to what the implications would be. For a few weeks in January, highway 443 was one of the hottest topics in the news.

And then, just like that, it wasn’t. Starting toward the end of January, the issue began to fade  – from the media spotlight and as a source of conversation among worried Israeli commuters and excited Palestinians. It was a silence that lasted for months, and one that was no doubt deepened by the army’s lack of progress in implementing the decision. It appeared that the controversy had just disappeared.

But that, it would seem, was the calm before the storm.

The full article by Matt Zalen will be published in this week's In Jerusalem
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