In Name of Peace, Israel Casts Safety Net to Its Settlers

But roads divide Palestinians and Israelis

ALL roads lead to Rome. Well maybe once, but here they lead to Israel.

A $330-million network of bypass roads connecting Jewish settlements with one another, and with Israel's major cities, is emerging as a central issue in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israeli officials insist that the roads are essential to prevent Palestinians and Jewish settlers from attacking each other - a constant source of friction since the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that began in 1987.

"If we want the peace process to succeed..., we have to look after the settlers, because every attack against them will damage the peace process," says Israeli Army spokesman Shlomo Dror.

But the existence of the roads is supporting two different realities: one serving 1.2 million Palestinians granted partial self-rule in 30 percent of the West Bank and another serving Jewish settlers living in the other 70 percent still under Israeli control.

Israeli and Palestinian civil rights workers argue that the web of roads is a clear indication that Israel does not plan to meet a key Palestinian demand in the peace process that 130,000 Jewish settlers should eventually leave the West Bank, or submit to Palestinian rule.

Under the agreement, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are to decide the future of the Jewish settlers during final status talks due to begin in May.

Government switch

But the Labor Party government, which put the bypass road plans on the back burner when it came to power in 1992, now portrays the road network as essential to the peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has repeatedly stated that the Jewish settlers should be allowed to remain in the Palestinian territory and could eventually live under Palestinian rule.

But the civil rights workers say that the road network has more to do with Israel maintaining long-term control of the area.

"The political value of the roads lie in their capacity to fragment Palestinian areas, enabling Israel to continue to dominate the West Bank, even with a reduced military presence," says Yifat Susskind of the Alternative Information Center (AIC) in Jerusalem, a joint Israeli-Palestinian human rights group.

The 20 bypass roads, covering 250 miles, branch from the trunk road - Route 60, which runs from north to south, dissecting the West Bank. Some of these roads are still under construction, and another five are planned.

Route 60 carefully skirts Palestinian towns and links scores of Jewish settlements scattered throughout the West Bank.

The construction of the roads has meant the confiscation of thousands of acres of Palestinian land and the destruction of dozens of homes, enraging many Palestinian landowners.

Until the signing of the second phase of the Israel-Palestinian peace accord last September, human rights groups and Palestinian community organizations vigorously protested the confiscation and seizure of Palestinian land for roadmaking.

When the Monitor visited the vineyards surrounding this Palestinian town near Hebron, residents were outraged at the uprooting of thousands of grapevines, which were just weeks away from bearing fruit.

Israeli bulldozers came in the middle of the night and began the road work under guard of several hundred Israeli soldiers.

"They didn't even give me time to pick my grapes," says Hussein al-Amtour, surveying a swath cut through his vineyard by bulldozers in late November. "The children came before sunrise, and they cried when they saw what had happened. And this is what they call peace."

In the past, Israel confiscated land it needed to build roads on and compensated those affected. But now, it is using a quicker procedure called "temporary seizure," which involves paying the landowner rent for a five-year period and limited compensation for crops that are destroyed.

Amtour says that he and many of his neighbors affected by the building of a bypass road to link Israeli settlements had refused compensation, because it was not a just settlement.

But civil rights lawyers and Israeli officials say most resistance by residents appears to have halted when they realized that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority had tacitly approved the plans.

"Most have accepted offers of rental payment for the land over a five-year basis on the grounds that the seizure is temporary," says a lawyer representing some of the Palestinian families.

"But it is merely another technical ploy by the Israeli authorities until the temporary seizure is later converted into a permanent confiscation," says the lawyer on condition of anonymity.

PA officials strongly deny that they have ever agreed to the seizure of Palestinian lands for settler bypass roads. But this has not changed the perception of most Palestinians and civil rights workers.

"If Israel continues to build bypass roads under the pretext of protecting the settlers, the peace process will not continue," says Ahmed Qureia, former economy minister in Mr. Arafat's government and a newly elected member to the Palestinian Council.

Settlers edgy

The roads also have failed to satisfy settlers who say they are often more dangerous than existing roads running through Palestinian towns.

"Either way it is scary," says Rebecca Ben-Ari, a mother living in the settlement of Efrat south of Bethlehem. "We feel we have received the short end of the stick."

She claims that the bypass road finished just before Israeli soldiers withdrew from Bethlehem in December is even more dangerous than driving on the dilapidated main road through the town.

Palestinian stonings and fire-bombings of vehicles have escalated since the road opened. Also, the road was not properly finished, is slippery in the rain, and has experienced rock falls.

Cynics argue that Mr. Peres is merely implementing the vision of the right-wing Likud Party for the West Bank: Palestinian cantons eventually linked to Jordan in an Israeli-dominated West Bank.

"The twin policies of confiscating and fragmenting Palestinian land, coupled with ongoing settlement, preclude the possibility of meaningful political independence on the West Bank," the AIC's Ms. Susskind says.

But Israeli officials say that the roads could one day be used by Palestinians.

"Even if [the settlers] leave one day, others will come to live in the settlements and use the roads," Israeli Army spokesman Dror says. "Maybe it will be the Palestinians...."

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