An Israeli high court decision nullifying a military ban on Palestinian motorists on a Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway is stirring a debate about the army's controversial segregated road system in the West Bank.
The 2-1 decision last week will force the army to remove roadblocks that have sealed off about 55,000 Palestinian villagers along a 14-mile stretch of highway No. 443. The ruling was hailed by Israeli human rights groups as a precedent-setting blow to a policy that some liken to South Africa's apartheid system.
But it has right-wing groups and Israeli motorists from a nearby bedroom suburb upset about the potential security risks. Five Israelis were killed on the road during the first years of the recent Palestinian uprising, and some fear that lifting the ban portends new road casualties.
"Somebody called it Russian Roulette,'' says Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of Shurat HaDin, a counterterrorism legal center that wants the high court to reconsider the issue with a larger panel of justices. "This is a decision that will cost human life, and as such it should not hold."
Route 443 peels off to the north from the main freeway link between the country's two largest cities, and passes by the sprawling middle-class suburb of Modiin. From there, it crosses into the West Bank, offering views of Arab villages with 55,000 residents, a concrete watchtower, a Jewish settlement, and the military's separation barrier hemming in the outskirts of Ramallah.
When Palestinian land was expropriated for construction of the road in the 1980s, Israel justified the construction against a legal challenge by saying it would serve the local residents first and foremost.
Today, some 40,000 cars use it daily. Like other West Bank highways closed to Palestinian traffic, Israel has tried to compensate the Palestinians along 443 with their own road. But that road is inferior in quality, according to the Supreme Court decision.
The court said that under international law Israel's military doesn't have the authority to impose a blanket ban to protect Israeli commuters on a road that it says was built for the Palestinians.
Moreover, banning Palestinians from the road creates "a sense of inequality and improper motives," wrote Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish in an concurring opinion. However, Beinish rejected the comparison with the South African Apartheid system.
The petitioners were helped fact that the Palestinian uprising has long since abated and the number of Israelis killed in militant attacks in the West Bank in 2009 was nearly zero.
Limor Yehuda, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel who represented the Palestinians, said the decision was important because, "the army must take the decision seriously into consideration and abolish the other places where we see those types of restrictions on movement imposed."
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