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Israel allows Palestinians on highway 443 to Ramallah – but blocks the exit

After a landmark court ruling, Israel's army today allowed Palestinians access to Road 443 for the first time in eight years. But they are still barred from using the road to get to Ramallah and Jerusalem – a 'farce' of the ruling, said one activist.

By Correspondent / May 28, 2010

A Palestinian woman carries goods, left, as Israeli soldiers inspect a Palestinian taxi on the new Israeli military checkpoint between the West Bank village of Beit Sira and Road 443, Friday.

Bernat Armangue/AP

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Beit Ghur a-Tahta, West Bank

For the first time in eight years, Israel today allowed Palestinians to drive on a four-lane highway that passes by this and five neighboring Arab villages.

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The relaxation complies with a landmark decision by Israel's High Court in December, and comes on the heels of Israel's separate announcement this week that it will ease restrictions on Palestinian movement and commerce elsewhere in the West Bank to build confidence in fledgling negotiations mediated by the US.

Built in the late 1980s on land expropriated from Palestinians, Road 443 has become a major artery for Israeli commuters but due to military concerns it was shut off to Arab motorists, forcing them to take inferior roads. It also has come to symbolize how Israeli security restrictions had created separate road systems in the West Bank for Israelis and Palestinians, which some argue is an echo of apartheid-era South Africa.

Despite the opening, however, many Palestinians villagers see the move as taking one step forward and two steps back, highlighting how years of roadblocks has eroded optimism about peace talks.

Villagers' access to 443 will be controlled by new checkpoints and Palestinians will still be barred from passing through the checkpoints at exits for Jerusalem and Ramallah – the seat of the Palestinian government and a major urban center.

"We won't have any benefits. It will be more complicated to go through new checkpoints,'' says Mayor Naji Suleiman of Beit Ghur a-Tahta, as he stood alongside a newly completed inspection booth and retractable steel column that Palestinians will need to pass through to get on the road. "It's like South Africa before [Nelson] Mandela…. I want to live in peace, but the Israelis want to keep control over everything.''

Army takes security precautions on 443

The Israeli army, meanwhile, has bolstered security along Road 443 in preparation for the change with extra barbed wire and video surveillance equipment.

Israel's government sees a grave security risk on a road where several motorists were killed in shootings and a suicide bombing during the first years of the Palestinian uprising that broke out in 2000. During the second half of 2007, the army counted nearly 60 incidents of rock-throwing and Molotov cocktail attacks.

Route 443 is "strategic'' because it is one of two highway links between Jerusalem and the coastal city of Tel Aviv, says Maj. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the army's central command.

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