Israel opens second banned highway to Palestinians before Mitchell visit

Israel high court overturned a ban on Palestinian use of a highway that cuts through the West Bank ahead of a visit by US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell next week.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Vehicles drive on Highway 443 near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev, Wednesday. Israel's Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Highway 443, which cuts through the West Bank, must be open to Palestinian traffic.

Israel's high court overturned Tuesday a long-standing ban on Palestinian traffic along a stretch of highway that cuts through the West Bank. Though cheered by activists, the move drew immediate fear from some Israelis of new terrorist attacks, again emphasizing the depth of the divide the US is expected to try to bridge in peace talks next week.

The 20 kilometer (about 12.5 miles) section of Route 443, which connects the Israeli city of Modiin with Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was closed to Palestinians in 2002 after a series of attacks on Israeli motorists. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which represented the six Palestinian villages that appealed to the court to lift the ban two years ago, called the ruling "a huge victory," reports Al Jazeera.

[The ban] turned what had been a 15 minute drive for tens of thousands of Palestinians into an hour of travel on dirt roads.

The court ruled the military did not have the authority to permanently limit Palestinian travel along the West Bank section of the road as such a move "in effect transforms the road into a route designed for 'internal' Israeli traffic alone".

It gave the military five months to implement its ruling.

Israel's supreme court accepted a similar petition in October, reversing a military order barring Palestinians from a stretch of road in the Hebron area, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Before the two rulings, more than 300 kilometers of road were designated as Israeli-only, the Ma'an News Agency cites Israeli human rights group B’Tselem as saying.

Route 443 is used by about 40,000 vehicles daily, and the section running across expropriated West Bank land was a main artery for locals in the Ramallah area before the ban. In 2004 Israel advised VIPs to avoid using the road due to the risk of rocket fire; security officials now say there is no threat, reports Haaretz.

The mayor of Modiin and family members of the victims of the early 2000 attacks along Route 443, however, are calling the reopening an invitation to disaster, reports Ynet.

"I can't bear the thought of another mother experiencing this kind of pain," Freda Sawari, whose son, brother and sister-in-law were killed in a 2001 terror attack near Beit Horon, told Ynet.

"I will never trust the Palestinians who live in the nearby villages. I know not all of them are evil, but even they don’t know who's living among them. The facts are very simple – once they fenced off the road they couldn’t kill Jews. Once they get the opportunity, they'll do it again."

Such mistrust underlies Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hesitancy to make concessions in attempting to resume peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell, during a visit to the region next week, is expected to present a new draft for resuming talks, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

"Everyone wants to make sure it looks like the ball is in the other guy's court," says Mark Heller, an analyst on the Middle East conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. In that way, he says, Netanyahu will be able to tell Barack Obama, who has made the peace process a foreign policy priority, that he's made as many overtures as he can without endangering the stability of his own government.


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