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.

When handing down its decision, the High Court added one small caveat, which at the time was given little attention.

“[The ruling does not imply that] the military commander must grant free and undisturbed access by the Palestinian villagers to highway 443,” wrote Fogelman. “He is allowed to take necessary measures to safeguard security in accordance with the situation at any given time.”

Security concerns being of paramount importance to the state, the point raised few eyebrows. But for the IDF, it was critical. In effect, so long as Palestinian traffic wasn’t fully blocked, the army had full discretion as to how to implement the ruling. And using that discretion to its fullest, the IDF drew up a plan that – while adhering to the order to allow for Palestinian traffic – ensured that the traffic would be minimal.

MOST PALESTINIANS are interested in using highway 443 for one reason: to get to Ramallah. Ramallah is where the jobs are, and the road would cut their commute to a fraction of what it is now. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that this is the first benefit cited when asked about the ruling.

“I think it’s great because it will make life easier for the Palestinian people,” says Adham Ankawi, a parking lot supervisor in Beit Sira, located immediately before the checkpoint near Modi’in. “They can go to Ramallah easier and faster, and everything will be okay.”

Hamis Ankari, another resident of the town, echoes the sentiment.

“Of course this is a good thing! Of course!” he exclaims. “If you want to drive to Ramallah, right now it’s one and a half hours. Now it’ll be 15 minutes.”

And up the road, in the village of Beit Tira, situated across the road from Beit Horon, the same thought prevails.

“To drive to Ramallah it takes me two hours. Now it’s going to take me two minutes,” says Muhammed Dais, who works as a day laborer to help construct the same barbed-wire fence that is meant to keep him out of certain parts of the West Bank.

But Ankawi, Dais and Ankari won’t be getting to Ramallah on highway 443 because the army plans to keep access to the city cut off. In fact, according to the current army plan, full access to the highway – that is, both an on ramp and an off ramp – will only be permitted near the villages of Beit Sira and Beit Ur al-Fauka, west of Ramallah, and exit-only ramps will open near Khirbeth al-Misbah – also west of Ramallah – and A-Tira. The rest of the road will thus remain off-limits.

When presented with the plan on April 18, ACRI officials and the mayors of the Palestinian villages that they represented were infuriated.

“Imagine that you have a road from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and you have access points to the more suburban areas like Herzliya, Ramat Hasharon and Caesarea,” posits ACRI spokesperson Nirit Moskovich. “And let’s assume that people in those towns work in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is the central destination on this road. And let’s assume that this road is blocked, and people are mostly concerned by the fact that they are unable to reach Tel Aviv. And then you open a small part of the road, between, let’s say, Caesarea and Netanya and you say, ‘Okay, the road is open. There is no problem anymore.’ But it’s nonsense because people need to get to Tel Aviv.”

That, she says, is exactly the situation that the army is creating on 443. “Most of the blockades are going to stay, and the ones  they’re opening are practically pointless. And they’re going to keep blocking the road that leads to Ramallah.”

Limor Yehuda, the ACRI lawyer who represented the petitioners to the High Court in December and who, along with the Palestinian mayors, was present at the meeting with the IDF, describes the moment her clients saw the plans.

“It was a major disappointment for them,” she recalls. “The change for the Palestinians is so minor that it hardly exists.”

Rather than pursuing a legal course of action to alter the IDF preparations, however, ACRI hopes that a letter the organization sent to IDF and government officials explaining the shortfalls and recommending certain changes will suffice.

BUT ANOTHER group not satisfied with letter-writing campaigns is pursuing the legal course, and it happens to be a group whose agenda is antithetical to the ACRI. Two weeks ago, the Shurat Hadin law center filed a petition on behalf of more than 1,000 Israeli commuters to the High Court alleging that the IDF preparations would not sufficiently safeguard Israeli lives and insisted that an injunction should be issued preventing the opening until the matter was resolved fully.

“In the wake of the court’s ruling, the IDF has hastily cobbled together a security framework for highway 443 that involves placing additional checkpoints on the village access roads and erecting barbed-wire fences along certain stretches of the highway,” a statement by the law center said. “The checkpoints alone cannot ensure that terrorists will not be able to enter highway 443 in Palestinian vehicles from the access roads. The fact that there will be cars with Palestinian license plates on the highway will seriously thwart the ability of the army and security services to determine who is a legitimate Palestinian driver and who is a terrorist.”

Members of both groups are opposed to the opening, and those that are in favor are unhappy with the current arrangement. And for Israelis and Palestinians affected by the upcoming change, that presents an increasingly unsettling picture. After all, if the transformation that they witness during their daily commute or from the windows of their villages is being condemned by everybody, then what does that mean for them? And to further aggravate the situation, any concern they raise about the matter – no matter how innocuous – is met with curt or deflective statements by the various relevant bodies:

The army, when confronted with the claims made in the Shurat Hadin petition, simply reiterated the details of its plans to open certain access roads and added that it “will continue to maintain the safety of the citizens of the State of Israel, while taking into account the Palestinian quality of life and honoring Israeli law and the Supreme Court decision.”

Transportation Ministry spokesperson Sharon Dor, when asked how the ministry plans to deal with the expected influx of Palestinian traffic onto the highway and the impact it may have on highway 1 should many Israeli commuters opt for an alternative route to Jerusalem, answered: “The decision to open highway 443 was made by the High Court of Justice, and our office will respect it.”

Commuters using public transportation also received no real answers.

“Public transportation in Israel operates according to the instructions of the Transportation Ministry and the security officials. So it has been in the past, and so it will be regarding the future of all things connected to 443,” says Egged spokesperson Ron Ratner when asked if the bus company would be changing its Modi’in-Jerusalem transit route in light of the expected increase in travel time and the possible security-related issues that might arise.

Likewise, Veolia – which operates the Connex 110 bus from Modi’in to Jerusalem – was similarly not forthcoming about possible changes to its bus route.

“The Veolia transportation company operates in various areas throughout the country and provides public transportation services in accordance with the decisions and instructions of the regulator,” says Miri Green, spokesperson for the company.

The only spokesperson who was actually outspoken was Elad Shimonovitch of the Modi’in Municipality. He was very vocal regarding the decision of the High Court, repeatedly warning that such a ruling would likely lead to increased terror attacks on the road. But when it came to issues falling under the responsibility of the municipality, even he was evasive. 

“Regarding traffic [in the city], we’re not able to say what the effects of the decision will be,” he said when asked how Modi’in will handle a traffic backlog that could possibly result from commuters rerouting to avoid the controversial road. “The IDF is going to do thorough checks of Palestinian vehicles that will be getting on the highway. So (a) there will be checks there, and (b) the army will increase the security, and it’s not clear to anybody how many Palestinian cars will actually use the highway. Therefore, regarding being prepared for traffic jams, there isn’t any kind of special preparation [being made].”

In short, all government institutions or private companies with a stake in the matter want to wait and see what happens before taking a firm position. And for Israelis and Palestinians who are the guinea pigs, this situation appears to require a leap of faith.

YET THERE are some who are ready for the challenge.

“If these guys [Palestinians] are willing to stop trying to kill us, then they’d be invited to be my neighbors,” says Guy Ayash, owner of the ParaPara café situated on 443 near the construction site of a new Givat Ze’ev neighborhood. Besides, he adds, “Arabs are great customers.”

Sitting across from him at the same tiny, plastic table, Dais, on break from his job stringing up barbed wire on the fence 10 feet away, agrees. “Whoever wants to hurt somebody, the fence won’t matter; nothing will matter,” he says. But he predicts that it’s not going to happen, as it will only make matters worse. And while the security problems happen to be the source of his income, it seems he’d rather be unemployed than see the current situation continue.

“I am working here, I earn money from this, but I’m sick of it!” he says.
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