Do the court-ordered changes to Road 443 help Palestinian movement near Jerusalem and Ramallah?

Will court-ordered changes bring any relief to misery of Palestinian vill
agers living who have been excluded for years from Israeli Road 443, a large part of which is built on their West Bank land — and which the Israeli military argued in court was built for their benefit?

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) who has helped the villagers fight their case in the Israeli Supreme Court says, regretfully, that the answer is probably no.

A landmark ruling last December initially raised high hopes, according to ACRI attorney Dan Yakir, when “the Court gave the Army five months to make arrangements — until the first of June”.

But, he noted, “it seems that the army is getting ready for a limited opening”…  although  it has now become clear that Road 443 will now be only “a service road between villages themselves, and not an access to Ramallah, which was its major purpose”.

ACRI said in a statement later that “the case of Route 443 represents a watershed moment in the legal history of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank”.

After years of court battles, ACRI said today, a Supreme Court decision ordering the reopening of the road for Palestinian use has been interpreted by the army in such a way that neighboring villagers will still be stuck without the direct and relatively easy access  they previously enjoyed to Ramallah and East Jerusalem, at least prior to the Second Intifada.

Starting in 2000, and until 2002, all Palestinian traffic was gradually banned from Road 443, and affected villagers have since suffered hardship, misery, and the indignity of humiliation.

“Since 2002″, ACRI says, “the ban on Palestinian traffic on Route 443 has been absolute”.

There was one shooting incident along Road 443 in 2oo1 in the area that is to be re-opened in the coming days, and there were several more in 2005, those took place but many kilometers closer to Jerusalem, where the highway is lined on both sides with a wall that looks like sober, decorative kitchen tiles in tones of browns and beiges.   There have been no shootings in recent years.

In recent months, along a more open stretch of Road 443 in the West Bank,  wire fences have been erected on both sides of the highway, doubled with four stacked coils of razor barbed wire piled one atop the other, all glistening brightly in the spring sunlight.

On 28 August 2007, when legal procedures were underway,  and, ACRI said,  after the High Court of Justice issued an injunction ordering the respondents to explain their prohibition on Palestinians’ movement on the road … thr IDF commander in the West Bank signed a written order officially banning Palestinians from using the road”.   A few days later, the Israeli military authorities claimed that “security considerations are at the basis of the travel ban, in light of a string of attacks on Israelis using the road”, and that “no other measures could provide a sufficient degree of security and that alternative ‘fabric of life’ roads would be built to minimize the damage”…

An imminent Court-ordered re-opening of the road will, it now appears, not change the situation very much — and probably only for the worse, ACRI fears.

According to ACRI, “the IDF’s plan to ‘open’ Route 443 at the end of May 2010 contains many faults and provides [only] limited access to Palestinians”.

Part of the re-design policy has been to re-direct Palestinians to Ramallah, making the West Bank, rather than to Jerusalem, their “center of life” for health care, education, shopping, and whatever limited cultural activities or recreation they are able to enjoy.

Some, though not many, of the residents of the villages affected by the ban of Palestinian traffic on Road 443 still have Jerusalem IDs.  A a number of others have permits to work in Jerusalem (or elsewhere, in Israel), though the unemployment rate is high as a result of the closure of Road 443, and many of the villagers are  now unemployed.

But neither those who have been Jerusalem residents nor those who work in Jerusalem can get to Jerusalem directly — as they could when Road 443 was open.  Now, everybody must go first north to Ramallah –  and then turn south, and pass  through the terrible Qalandia checkpoint, to get to Jerusalem.

A trip to Ramallah that used to take 10 to 20 minutes will now take between 45 minutes and several hours.  Palestinians will have to pass through additional checkpoints.   Then, getting to Jerusalem takes another hour or more.

Others — mainly manual workers — go on foot, mostly very early in the morning, starting before 4 am, past the boulders blocking off the road that used to pass from Ramallah to Gaza in under an hour, and walk through the Maccabim checkpoint at the far left of the ACRI graphic map, below.  Once inspected and cleared, they can board transportation vans waiting on the Tel Aviv side of the checkpoint to head for jobs in various Israeli cities.   Twelve hours later, they reverse their course to return to their homes and families.

ACRI graphic of 4-km section of Road 443 that will soon be reopened to Palestinian traffic

The white line in the middle of the graphic is one of the new “fabric of life” roads for Palestinian use.  However, to access it, Palestinians will have to drive on Road 443 in the direction of Jerusalem all the way until they reach the newly-constructed checkpoint just south of Beitunia — because there is no left-turn allowed.  Then they will have to go through the New Checkpoint, and turn around and drive more than half of the distance back to the Makkabim Checkpoint before they will be able to access the new road that will take them back to Beitunia and then on to Ramallah.  ACRI asked the Supreme Court to re-open the Beitunia Checkpoint, to make access to Ramallah easier, but that request was rejected.

Workers from the villages south of Road 443 who have permits to go to work in Jerusalem will have to take this longer way around, and go through more checkpoints, just to reach Beitunia, then Ramallah, where they will have to head back south again and pass through the terrible Qalandia checkpoint before getting to work in Jerusalem.  That trip will take at least a full two hours every morning.  If the computers in Qalandia are not working, which happens often, then the Palestinians with permits will have to take another trip south, and head either for the Isawiyya or Bethlehem checkpoints, before finally entering Jerusalem.

On the way home, these Palestinian workers with permits will come a different way, up to the Ramot checkpoint, then east to Beit Iksa, where the Palestinians report a big new checkpoint — like Qalandia, they say — is also being built…

This transportation purgatory often turned to hell.  Leaders from nearby villages told journalists in Beit Sira today that “these difficulties have led to humanitarian cases, and some died as a result of complications to movement”, and, they added “in the winter, water flooded the roads (particularly the tunnel underpasses),  making the situation even worse”.  A bypass road that collapsed during the winter weather has still not been fixed, the leaders said.

The local officials explained that the cost of transportation has doubled with the difficulties in getting around, and that services — including banks and government offices — refuse to open in the area due to the transporation problems.  A woman who delivered her baby at a checkpoint there after being forced to wait in a car for several hours while in labor also told her story to journalists today.

The Israeli military administration expropriated Palestinian-owned West Bank lands in the 1980s to build Road 443.

When a group of Palestinian land-owners petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court against the expropriation on the grounds that the military commanders could  not confiscate land for Israelis because this is occupied territory, ACRI said, “the Israeli army claimed that the aim of the planned roads is to benefit the local population, and the fact that they would be serving Israelis as well was immaterial”.

“The petition claimed that access to the road is vital for the local villagers, and that their access to Ramallah — which is an essential centre for commercial and social services — depends on it.  Moreover, because Route 443 runs through agricultural lands, the ban prevents villagers from accessing their lands on the sides of the road … In the meantime, local Palestinians must travel on dangerous, long roads to reach Ramallah and neighboring villages”.

ACRI argued that “restriction on movement on the basis of a person’s national or ethnic origin amounts to illegal discrimination”, and that the ban was “an unlawful infringement of basic human rights”, and also contravenes the duties of the miltary commander both under international law and an earlier High Court ruling.

ACRI attorney Dan Yakir said to journalists in Beit Sira on Tuesday that it was “clear from the start that the idea was to connect Tel Aviv with Jerusalem”.   He said that the road expanded dramatically in the 1990s, and now there are at least 40,000 Israeli vehicles using the road daily.

He added that in 2007, the Army “said that there would be serious security problems if Road 443 would be opened to Palestinians, and suggested constructing by-pass roads”.

But, he noted, at the end of December 2009, the Supreme Court changed its mind, and “ordered the State to open the road to Palestinian traffic within five months”.

Yakir said, the Court “accepted our position, and our main argument — that it is illegal to have separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians, and ruled that since Road 443 was constructed on Palestinian land for the benefit of Palestinians, the army should open it up to them”.

But, he noted, “the Court left a lot of leeway to the Army”.

ACRI said that this was “intially perceived as a victory for the rule of law and human rights”, but that while the justices spoke about the need to protect the human rights of the affected Palestinian population, the court “chose not to state which roadblocks must be removed or which steps the army must take to fulfil its legal obligations to the local population.   Moreover, the court did not call for the opening of the Beitunia crossing, which connects the Palestinian villages to the metropolitan center of Ramallah”.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Jewish residents of the many settlements in the area say they fear for their safety, and are afraid of what will happen now.  They indicate they plan to return to Route 1 as an alternative — though very overcrowded during rush hours, it is the only other major route between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

In April, the IDF announced that there would be only two entrance points and four exit points from Road 443 for Palestinian use.  In addition, the military said, they would construct another checkpoint — at the intersection of road 436, across from Ofer, at the entrance to the Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev.

The Palestinians will, they discovered, have only limited access to just 4 kilometers of the road.

Some 14 kilometers of Road 443′s total length of 25 kilometers are in the occupied West Bank.

And, ACRI reports, “for the past three months, the ‘fabric of life’ road heading out of Ramallah [n.b.-the white road on the ACRI graphic map above, going from near Road 443, between Beit Ur at-Tahta and Beit ur al-Fawka, and on to Beitunia] has been blocked to traffic”.

At the end of April, ACRI submitted an urgent appeal to the deputy Attorney-General, “claiming that the plan only provides the illusion of an opening and does not  coincide with the central tenets of the High Court ruling and the obligations of the military commander towards the local population”.  On 9 May, the Deputy Attorney General informed ACRI that the partial reopening would “proceed as planned”.

Today, in Beit Sira, leaders from a group of seven villages which have been involved in the court petitions issued a statement asking for (1) the opening of Road 443 for the use of Palestinian residents from the villages without delay; (2) for the opening of the road from Beitunia “near Ofer”, as in the past;  (3) for the opening of a route in the direction of northern Jerusalem from the Jib and Biddo area; and (4) for removing all security and other obstacles.

Meanwhile, there is still a major problem at the large and terrible Qalandia checkpoint, which was included in ACRI’s petition to the Supreme Court.  But, ACRI Attorney Dan Fakir indicated, the Court was satisfied when “the army brought plans and said they’ll take care of it”…

In a statement later on Tuesday, ACRI said it “holds both the IDF and the High Court responsible for what will become a human rights travesty. While the IDF is taking care to adhere to the letter of the law in the Court’s decision, it is acting in utter disregard of the spirit of the ruling which deemed the closing of Route 443 illegal and unacceptable. Rather than redressing the gross injustice committed over the past decade, the IDF continues to exploit every possible loophole to maintain the status quo”.

There is not much further legal avenue for appeal, Yakir he noted, but if, for example, the road is not opened in the coming days, “this will be in contempt of court, and we will return to court”.

However, ACRI attorney Dan Yakir said to journalists in Beit Sira on Tuesday that it was “clear from the start that the idea was to connect Tel Aviv with Jerusalem”.

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