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.
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.
"If this road is closed, it limits the access to the capital," he says. "From a security point of view, this is the reason why the road needs to be open, to facilitate the free flow of traffic from the coast region to the capital.''
Lerner says the military is in full compliance with the court ruling because the justices neither insisted on linking the road to Ramallah nor spelled out specifically how the military should facilitate access between villages and the road itself. He argues that by opening six access points, the army is going above and beyond the requirements of the ruling. Lerner said on Friday that cars are stopped for an average of four minutes at security checkpoints.
The army says it spent over $40 million to build a separate road for Palestinians to reach the outskirts of Ramallah. But the road was recently unnavigable for about two months because winter weather caused a bridge to collapse. The army says the bridge has since been repaired.
Activist: Army policy makes a 'farce' of landmark ruling
Human rights activists note that the army originally justified confiscating Palestinian lands for the highway by insisting it would primarily serve the welfare of the Arab population.
Rights groups and the Palestinian villagers bemoan the fact that access to the highway for Palestinians will be severely limited – one entrance and two exits in each direction along the nine-mile stretch of West Bank road that connects Jerusalem's northern tip to the Israeli suburb of Modiin and eventually Tel Aviv.
Melanie Takefman, a spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which helped bring the case to the High Court, said the fact that Palestinian villagers will not be able to use 443 to visit Ramallah makes a "farce'' of a ruling originally hailed as a landmark case. The army, she said, is following the letter of the ruling but not the spirit of the ruling against the blanket ban.
In a December concurring opinion, Chief Justice Dorit Beinish wrote that banning Palestinians from the road creates "a sense of inequality and improper motives,'' though she rejected the comparison with apartheid.
West Bank economy grew nearly 10 percent in 2009
The timing of the opening coincided with Israel's announcement of a package of measures aimed at boosting the fledgling peace negotiations: removing 60 road barriers in the West Bank, removing a checkpoint on a heavily used road by Palestinians, freeing up tourist traffic to and from Bethlehem, easing movement for Palestinian businessmen, and allowing Arab citizens of Israel greater freedom to visit Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israel's decision to ease restriction on Palestinian traffic last year provided some economic relief to the northern West Bank because it allowed people and businesses to move around more efficiently and at lower costs.
Some say the modest recovery – economic growth in the West Bank in 2009 was close to 10 percent – can be linked to a reluctance among the public to embark on a new uprising against Israel. According a March survey by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, 72 percent oppose a new intifada.
"Parallel to the talks, the positive traction of changing realities on the ground should continue,'' wrote Gilead Sher, a former peace negotiator, in the Palestinian-Israeli online forum Bitterlemons.org. "Israelis and Palestinians need to prime their constituencies and prepare the ground for acceptable and legitimate compromise. We need to gradually ready the hearts and minds of our publics for transformation.''
Ceramic tile dealer hopes Israelis bargain hunters will return
But the hearts and minds of officials on both sides have yet to be won.
Asked about the effect of the Israeli gestures announced this week on the lives of everyday Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority's Economic Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh told the Monitor that the list of measures could positively affect business activity. But he dismissed the importance of Israel removing the 60 barriers, referring to them as "piles of dirt.'' Mr. Abu Libdeh says he has doubts about whether the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make good on the gesture.
Some Palestinians remain optimistic about the opening, however. Samir El Oury, whose ceramic tile dealership saw a 70 percent drop-off in sales with the closing of 443, he says the opening of the access roads will encourage the return Israeli bargain hunters who once frequented Beit Ghur a-Tahta to buy food and other merchandise.
"Work will pick up,'' he says. "Israeli citizens don't like the prices inside of Israel, and they will now have access to the village.''
Other villagers interviewed several days before the opening said they would wait to see how easy passage is through the checkpoint before judging.
"Let's see what happens after it opens. If the checkpoints are easy then it will be a good development,'' says Mohammed Aiyseh, a taxi van driver who ferries passengers from Ramallah to the villages along 443 via back roads. "If [checkpoints] will be difficult, I will take the old roads. I hope there will be progress in our life, but it doesn't seem so.''