Every day, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians drive through the middle of the Palestinian town of Huwara, generating extreme traffic jams and creating a situation ripe for clashes and violence.
Highway 60, which goes through the town, is one of the only roads available to Israelis running north-south in the northern West Bank, besides Highway 90, which runs along the border with Jordan.
The only other major Israeli roads in the area near Huwara are Highway 5, Highway 55 and Highway 57, which all go east-west from near Kfar Saba, Petah Tikva and Netanya.
Repeated violent clashes
While the deadly terrorist attack and subsequent violent and destructive rampage by settlers in Huwara earlier this week were unusual in terms of scale and intensity, for years the Palestinian town has been the scene of repeated violent clashes between settlers, Palestinians and Israeli security forces.
“The number of rock throwings varies from day to day,” a security source states in an article on the IDF’s website. “There are rare days when there are no rock throwings at all, and on days when we feel a sharp increase, we will do a night of warning calls and wake-up operations. We will usually talk to the parents of a boy who throws rocks; and if they have work permits, we threaten to cancel them. Whoever lends a hand to terrorism must understand that it has consequences.”
Despite the high level of violence, government plans to build a road bypassing the town began only in 2017, and the road is not set to be finished until at least the end of this year.
In 2017, families who lost relatives to terrorist attacks began a hunger strike in front of the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanding the construction of bypass roads around Palestinian towns and better and safer infrastructure throughout the West Bank. Shortly afterward, an agreement was reached to provide a budget for bypass roads.
The construction of the Huwara bypass road began about three years later, in February 2021.
The road, which has an expected opening date of the first quarter of 2024 (delayed from the original expected date of the first quarter of 2023), will be a four-lane road including four bridges, two agricultural crossings and a crossing for students.
A day after the terrorist attack in which Israeli brothers Hallel and Yagel Yaniv were murdered in Huwara, Transportation Minister Miri Regev arrived to the area and ordered that the construction of the road be sped up, with construction work to continue day and night.
“We have the money and the ability, so there is no reason why it shouldn’t happen. And if we need to recruit more contractors for this, then we will recruit more contractors,” said Regev.
Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan called for the work on the road to continue “24/7” and for the road to be finished in less than a year.
IDF Gen. (ret.) Gadi Shamni, who served OC Central Command between 2007 and 2009, noted in an interview with 103FM that Huwara is one of the few places left in the West Bank in which an Israeli road runs through the middle of a Palestinian town. Shamni added that he had already approved the route of the bypass road around Huwara during his time as OC Central Command.
Shamni lamented that the construction of the bypass road has been stretched out for years, pointing out that after the 1997 Hebron Agreement, the Engineering Corps had built a road bypassing Hebron within a week. Shamni called for the government to stop working with the contractors who have been taking years to complete the road and to have the Engineering Corps finish the job.
Shamni stressed that the fact that the road has taken so long to finish shows “negligence” on the side of the government.
Concerning what to do until the road is finished, Shamni stated, “I think there is no other option, at this time, than just being more careful – meaning, also Israelis need to take it upon themselves to be more careful. The IDF also needs to obligate them in this regard.” The former commander suggested that the IDF provide more security for Israelis passing through the town as well. “We shouldn’t treat this like some road in the northern Galilee.”
Alongside Huwara, additional bypass roads have been planned to go around the Palestinian refugee camp Al-Arroub and town of Beit Umar, north of Hebron, and around the Palestinian town of Lubban al-Gharbi near Beit Aryeh-Ofarim, as well as an underground road passing under Kalandiya.
While work began over 17 years ago on the bypass road around Lubban al-Gharbi, it still has not been completed. The coalition agreement between Otzma Yehudit and the Likud Party included the granting of a budget to complete the construction of the road.
The Kalandiya underpass is currently under construction and is set to be completed within the next year. The Al-Arroub bypass is also still under construction.
On Monday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signed a seizure order to allow the paving of a new bypass road around the Palestinian village of al-Funduq as well. Currently, Israelis have to drive on Highway 55, which passes through the town, which has been the scene of repeated rock and Molotov cocktail throwing. Israeli Shalom Sofer was stabbed to death in a terrorist attack in the village late last year.
WHILE BYPASS roads can be helpful in preventing clashes and terrorist attacks, left-wing NGOs have expressed concerns that their main purpose ends up being to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The Peace Now NGO noted that, historically, the paving of bypass roads has led to an acceleration of the development of nearby settlements.
The construction of bypass roads also often entails the confiscation of Palestinian-owned land through military orders. In the case of the Huwara bypass, over 40 hectares of land in the area were confiscated under a military expropriation order, according to Peace Now.
In 2020, the Breaking the Silence organization noted that the construction of bypass roads after the signing of the Oslo Accords “enabled rapid suburbanization of the settlements and aided the growth of the settler population in the West Bank from about 116,000 in 1995 to about 440,000 [in 2020].
“By building bypass roads to connect Israeli settlements to one another and to Israel proper without entering Palestinian cities and towns, the Israeli government made it possible to enable fully segregated infrastructure in the West Bank,” added Breaking the Silence, pointing to the fact that Palestinian access to bypass roads was blocked during the Second Intifada.
Both Breaking the Silence and Peace Now pointed to the Za’atara bypass road/Route 398, known as the “Liberman Road,” as an example of settlement growth in correlation to the development of bypass roads. Within eight years from its opening, the number of settlers living in settlements serviced by the road increased by 90%, hundreds of new housing units were built and thousands more were planned, according to Breaking the Silence.
In 2021, Regev, who was transportation minister then as well, referred to the new roads being built in the West Bank, including the Huwara bypass, as “de facto sovereignty.”