The Great Divide: Israel's forbidden road
It runs straight through the heart of the occupied West Bank, but Palestinians are not permitted even to set foot on the asphalt their ancestors laid. Donald Macintyre reports from Beit Sira
Published: 02 January 2008
It's just after dusk on Route 443, where the heavy northbound traffic from Jerusalem decelerates as it approaches the Maccabim checkpoint. The Israeli commuters, impatient to get home to Tel Aviv or the dormitory town of Modiin, have no idea that in the darkness to the left of the four-lane highway, everyday scenes are unfolding that tell their own story about this land and the conflict that has scarred it for 40 years.
We are in a side road, the one that drivers used to take if they were heading for Beit Sira and the other West Bank villages beyond it, until the Israeli military closed the entrance to cars with two rows of solid concrete blocks. Beyond them, you can just make out the distinctive green and white Palestinian number plates of some 30 parked cars belonging to the very small minority of Palestinians here who have a coveted permit to work in Israel. The labourers are on their way home after a day that may have begun as early as 3.30am to allow time to queue at the checkpoint in time to start jobs paying around £12 per day net of permit and travel costs.
As the home-bound workers with permits start arriving at the barrier, a Jewish woman is negotiating beside her parked car with a young Arab seamstress from the village over how fast she can embroider a dress for her clothing business in the orthodox religious Israeli community of Bnei Brak. "I come here because its 200 per cent cheaper," explains the woman, who gives her name only as Naomi. As she talks, an Israeli police van pulls up, its blue light flashing, with two brothers arrested that afternoon in Tel Aviv for working in Israel without a permit.
The older brother Walid, 53, is a veteran illegal worker, as skilled in negotiating the 10 kilometres or so of hill paths that will avoid the checkpoints and patrols of the Israeli military until he catches an Egged bus to the city, as he is in his trade of electrician. No he says, although they were bound they had not been beaten or humiliated by the policemen on this occasion. And no, it will not deter him from taking the risk again. "I will go back to Tel Aviv tomorrow," he says defiantly.
But it is the highway itself that underlines the separation between Israelis and Palestinians here. For Naomi it is a supremely fast and convenient route to a meeting with her workers. Palestinians, like Walid face a fine for even walking on or across it, let alone driving on it. For while this stretch passes straight through the West Bank, only Israelis are actually allowed to use it. Tens of thousands do so every day. And next week the traffic may be even heavier. While the Israeli authorities are understandably reticent about the security arrangements for the visit of President George Bush, the speculation is that the main Route 1 through Israel from Tel Aviv will be closed to ensure his safe passage from Ben Gurion airport, and normal traffic diverted to 443.
There is a mild irony in the prospect that a visit by a US president dedicated to hastening a Palestinian state may oblige many thousands of Israelis to drive straight through the occupied territory on which Palestinians hope that state will be created. For the Israeli motorists who already use it it is a harmless and convenient way of cutting journey times. But for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel the prohibition on Palestinian use of the road is "an extreme and grave example" of what it calls "the State of Israel's publicly declared policy of separation and [illegal] discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin in territories under its control."
Until 2002, 443 was the main artery connecting the seven villages along the road with each other, with much of their farmland, and with Ramallah, the city to which the 37,000 villagers have long looked as the city they visited for work, for shopping, for medical, especially hospital, services and to visit relatives and friends. Before the intifada, the Israeli authorities, seeking an alternative route to the rapidly expanding dormitory town of Modiin, and to relieve congestion on Route 1 the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, began the process of widening the road, using some privately owned Palestinian land in the process. The Israeli Supreme Court had approved the land requisition more than a decade earlier on the understanding that the widening would benefit local Palestinians as well as Israelis. Five years ago, however – after of a series of attacks, including, in the first years of the intifada, shooting attacks, on Israeli motorists – the military closed off all the feeder roads to 443 from the Palestinian villages alongside it.
Israel argues that the prohibition is needed to guarantee the Israeli users of the road security. But another Israeli human rights organisation, Btselem, while recognising Israel's duty to keep its citizens safe, said the blanket prohibition "appears to be based on extraneous reasons, the most important being Israel's desire to annex, de facto, the area along which the road runs." It added: "If Israel were only interested in protecting the lives of Israelis using the road, without annexing the area, it could limit or even prohibit the travel of Israelis on the road, and build other roads and provide other means of transportation to connect Jerusalem and Tel Aviv."
The military has built three "fabric of life" roads for Palestinians – again confiscating Palestinian land to do so – which link the villages with a winding, badly worn, single track route to Ramallah and which the military says are kept under review but "adequately and fully address the traffic needs of the Palestinians in the area." The mayor of Beit Sira, Ali Abu Safa, says they create a journey of between 60 and 90 minutes to the city compared with the 12 minutes it took when they used 443.
Mr abu Safa, 51, points out that this is rather more than a tiresome inconvenience. "There is no point in calling an ambulance if someone is sick because it will take more than an hour to arrive," he says. The mayor claims that several villagers have died on the long journey to hospital by private car, the latest, four months ago, a 10-year-old boy from Beit Sira called Ahmed Yusef Ali, who had been badly injured in a road accident.
Patients from the village needing dialysis, he says, pay 150 shekels – or just under £19 – three times a week for a taxi to the city. Students in further or higher education need to pay a daily 20 shekels on a "service" minibus to Ramallah and back. "If a man has five children that means 100 shekels a day or 3,000 a month," says Mr abu Safa, who claims that "80 per cent of students do not go to the universities because there is no money".
The economic impact has certainly been severe. Mr abu Safa, who is a construction contractor, says that the cost of a truckload of aggregate has risen from 350 shekels a day to 1,200 because "of the route they have to take". And then there is the impact on businesses that were dependent on Israeli customers who – ironically – cannot now reach them because of the concrete blocks and iron gates shutting the side roads off 443. The human rights organisation Btselem has calculated that more than 100 small shops have shut along the route since the closures, "among them floor-tile establishments, flower shops, furniture stores, and restaurants". In an area famous for its tiles, 67-year-old Ali Al Ori's $4m (£2m) tile factory and warehouse used to employ 40 workers and turn over a million shekels to Israeli customers alone because it was just three minutes' journey from the main road.
"Now that figure is zero," says Mr Ori, 67, who employs just six workers serving a sporadic local market. Mr Ori points out that this only one example of the deep decline of West Bank business because of physical restrictions on movement and warns that the $7.4bn emergency fund Prime Minister Salam Fayyad secured at the Paris donors' conference last month "is of no value unless the checkpoints and road closures are lifted."
Mr abu Safa once enjoyed the best of relations with Israelis; he says that time was when 443 was open to both nationalities that "I used to go with Jewish friends to Ramallah." Yusef Mohammed Yusef,61, one of Beit Sira's former mukhtars like his father before him, claims the British mandate government used local Palestinian labour to build the old road that is now 443 "without wages". He adds: "My father helped to build this road. Now we can't use it and it takes us an hour and a half to get to Ramallah. It's unbelievable."
An outline plan from the emergency Palestinian Authority in Ramallah provides for the hospital – financed by international donors – that the villages never needed when Route 443 was open. But Mr abu Safa says: "We said yes, but really we think that it's the wrong idea. It means we are co-operating with the idea that the road will always be closed." Similarly, the military's civil administration proposed last year that the seven villages could between them have 80 cars with permits – for daytime only – to use part of 443. But as leader of the campaign against the closure, Mr abu Safa refused because it would have been divisive and "because the road should be open to everyone".
Mr abu Safa is deeply sceptical of the security arguments for the prohibition on a road monitored from four military watchtowers and which already passes close enough to the villages to put Israeli motorists directly in their firing line. The military, however, says that while the road was intended for joint Israeli-Palestinian use "It is the obligation of the military commander under international law to take the necessary measures to guarantee the security of those within the area," including Israeli users of the road. He therefore adopted "a traffic separation arrangement, aimed at preventing terrorist elements from reaching the route." The last shooting –which killed three Israelis – was in August 2001. Since then, however, there have been sporadic throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails, with three Israelis injured and 13 cars damaged since August 2007.
Because the road passes directly through the occupied West Bank, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel argues that it is the military commander's "primary duty" to enable the local population to use the road. "Only once this duty has been fulfilled, may the military commander allow Israelis to use the road as well, once he has solved the problem of providing them with the proper protection."
In the village of At Tira, Madi Bassem, 29, was embarking on the long journey back to her husband in Ramallah, after visiting her parents for the Eid festival, walking past the concrete blocks which close it off to cars, to wait for one of the few service taxis permitted to approach the village. (A few permits have been accepted by At Tira because –uniquely– there are no back road alternatives to 443 to reach the neighbouring Palestinian villages.) Across the road is the Jewish settlement of Beit Horon, which swallowed five acres of land owned by her father and which, unlike the Palestinian villages, enjoys uninterrupted access from Route 443. Before the closure, Mrs Bassem could have made the journey from Ramallah and back in a few minutes. Now, she says, it is "is easier to get to Jordan than to Ramallah".
Back at Beit Sira, Mr abu Safa says that while waiting for a positive outcome from the current court challenges against the prohibition, the villagers will keep up their regular demonstrations against the closure, protests that deliberately eschew the involvement of the main Palestinian factions. He says he is confident that the Israeli Supreme Court will eventually order the reopening of 443 because "the road is ours. This is very clear." But if not, he says, the protest organisers will no longer be able to confine the carefully marshalled protests to around 100 people. "There will be 37,000 people out here, blocking the road" he says.