The case, filed by the Association for Human Rights Israel (ACRI) on behalf of 22 Palestinian villages in the area south of Hebron, is being hailed by human rights activists as a victory in their battle against segregated roads in the occupied West Bank. While most West Bank roads are open to both Israelis and Palestinians, a few major ones are closed to Palestinian traffic, leading critics to decry them as "apartheid" roads.
A spokeswoman for ACRI said that it was the first time that the Supreme Court had ever ruled on road closures imposed by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). Following the outbreak of violence in the second intifada in September 2000, the IDF closed roads in many areas in what it said was a move to protect Israeli citizens, including both Jewish settlers and passing Israeli motorists. Approximately 10 of these roads remain closed, ACRI says.
"The Supreme Court never made a decision before relating to a particular place where Palestinians are banned from driving on a road just for being Palestinians," said Nirit Moskovich of ACRI. The group is disappointed, however, that the Supreme Court did not seize the opportunity to make a ruling on segregated roads in general, she added.
"In our petition, we put great emphasis on the fact that the entire notion of prohibiting public resources to people based on their ethnic or national identity is forbidden and should be outlawed," Ms. Moskovich said. "But the Supreme Court did not refer to that at all in their decision. It was based on the circumstances of that particular case."
The 29 members of the Jadallah family in the village of Beit Awa were a compelling example of the hardships caused by the policy. They live adjacent to the road in question, Road 354, which they haven't been allowed to use since 2001. That left the only route to and from the family homes over treacherous, unpaved mountain roads. Older family members found it impossible to travel at all.
"It is hard to downplay the damage caused to the local residents, as clearly demonstrated by the petitioners," the Supreme Court justices said in their ruling.
Israel's Supreme Court is one of the country's more liberal-minded institutions, and has often made rulings that are at odds with other spheres of power in the Israeli establishment. Ten years ago, ACRI, The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and HaMoked: the Center for the Defense of the Individual, won a Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the use of torture by Israel's security services. The groups complain that the anti-torture ruling is regularly violated.
Thursday's ruling is likely to provide additional pressure for the high court to decide on Road 443, a larger and well-trafficked road also closed to Palestinians.
"Today's ruling is particularly relevant as it may influence future court decisions on the legality of this separation regime, such as the notorious case of Route 443. ACRI submitted a petition against the segregation of this road and is awaiting a ruling," Attorney Limor Yehuda said in a release.
"As such, it is alarming that Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish refers to the notion of proportionality in the present ruling and avoids confronting the principle at stake: the legality of Israel's policy of segregation and discrimination in the West Bank."
The army said in its petition that the closure order was issued to protect residents in the West Bank settlement of Negohot and other settlement outposts, where about 200 Israelis live. The court gave the IDF three months to find another solution.