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May 27, 2010 – As the afternoon heat shimmers on the surface of a four-lane highway whipping through the occupied West Bank, Hani Aburabah, a 45-year-old chicken farmer, drops down a slipway and walks towards a row of large concrete blocks forming a barrier across the road.
He is on his way home to his village of Beit Sira, a journey that takes him one and half hours. “I have to go round the globe in order to enter my village,” he says with a wry smile.
It wasn’t always so. Route 443, the road he has just come off, has been barred to Palestinian traffic for the last eight years – a symbol of the separation between the two sides of this conflict. Before 2002 Palestinians used it freely to get between nearby towns and villages in the West Bank; since then they have been forced to use circuitous and poorly maintained back roads, often quadrupling their journey times.
But from tomorrow the army will be forced to comply with an order fromIsrael‘s high court to reopen the road to Palestinian traffic following a case brought by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (Acri).
Nobody is happy. Israeli drivers fear their security will be compromised; Palestinians say the reopening of the road is a farce, rendered worthless by the construction of new checkpoints.
“The IDF [army] say they are opening the road, but they are also building new checkpoints on our land,” says Bassam Kattab, 34, selling lemonade to workers passing through the concrete barrier.
Nearby, separated by an earth bank and a two-metre high metal fence topped with razor wire, some of the 40,000 Israeli cars that use route 443 daily are hurtling towards Jerusalem. Army watchtowers punctuate the length of the road.
Over the years a number of roads connecting Jewish settlements in the West Bank have been designated for exclusive Israeli use. The 443, however, is a strategic corridor between Israel’s two main cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. More than half its 15-mile length cuts through the West Bank. Privately owned Palestinian land was expropriated to develop the road in the 1980s, a move allowed by the high court on the basis that it would serve both Israelis and Palestinians.
For years, the road connected seven Palestinian villages along its route with each other and with the city of Ramallah, a hub for shopping, business and recreation. But following several attacks in 2001-2, in which six Israelis were killed, route 443 was closed to Palestinian drivers and access to their villages blocked.
Journeys that had taken moments suddenly took hours. Villagers say it wasn’t just an inconvenience: several have died while trying to reach hospitals on the back roads, they say. Then last December the court ruled in favour of the challenge brought by Acri.
More than 1,000 Israeli families have petitioned against the move. “They don’t want to risk their lives by using this road alongside Palestinian drivers,” says Nitsana Durshan-Leitner of Shurat HaDin, a law centre that represents them.
Acri believes few Palestinians will use the road even if they are allowed to. Along the route four army checkpoints are being established at which Palestinian vehicles will be searched and their drivers’ papers examined.
The aim, according to Acri, is to make it difficult if not impossible for the villagers to use the road while allowing the IDF to claim it has fulfilled the order of the high court.
This cuts no ice with Durshan-Leitner. “Even if it harms Palestinian lives by forcing them to spend more time on small roads, the rights of people using [the 443] are superior. The right to life is higher than the right to get somewhere five minutes earlier.”
Back at the concrete barrier near Beit Sira, Bassam Kattab has some questions. “Why are the people of Tel Aviv allowed to move freely, and not me? Why are we the forgotten people? Why aren’t there demonstrations all over the world to protest at this apartheid system?”