Israeli military told to let Palestinians travel on highway


Thu, Dec 31, 2009 - Page 6

Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered the military to allow Palestinians to travel on the part of a major highway that runs through the West Bank, handing Palestinians their biggest victory yet against Israel’s practice of reserving some roads for Jews.

The West Bank section of Route 443 linking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was closed in 2002 to Palestinians, after militants shot at Israeli vehicles on the highway and killed several motorists.

About half of the 32km highway runs through the West Bank. Palestinians living in villages along the route petitioned to have it reopened for them in 2007, as the Palestinian uprising against Israel wound down.

The court said in a summary of its ruling that the military does not have the authority to impose a permanent and sweeping limitation on Palestinian travel along the West Bank section of the road because that “in effect transforms the road into a route designed for ‘internal’ Israeli traffic alone.”

It also said the closure of the road “does not benefit the local population, from whom lands were appropriated to build it.”

The judges ruled that security considerations cannot take precedence.

“It’s a huge victory,” said Melanie Takefman, spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which represented the Palestinians in their petition before the court.

The restrictions caused hardships for tens of thousands of Palestinians, who were forced to travel on dirt roads to other areas of the West Bank. That problem was eased last year with the opening of alternative paved routes for Palestinians.

Palestinian Hassan Mafarjeh, the mayor of Beit Liqya village near the highway, said the alternate road was not a solution.

“We reject the principle that our land is expropriated to build more roads,” he said.

He said the trip to the main city in the area, Ramallah, took an hour on the dirt roads and 30 minutes on the alternate road. Using the highway would cut that to just 15 minutes, he said.

The court gave the military five months to implement the ruling.

Under existing regulations, sections of the road that lie in Israeli territory will remain closed to Palestinian vehicles, as are all Israeli roads.

Meanwhile, Israel’s prime minister on Tuesday presented Egypt with ideas for restarting Mideast peace talks, impressing his hosts with proposals that go further than past Israeli positions, Egypt’s top diplomat said.

The meeting took place as a Hamas official said his group had rejected Israel’s latest proposal for a prisoner swap with the Islamic militants. A top Hamas official in Syria said the deal is on hold because Israel was refusing to release key prisoners and insisting on mass deportations of freed militants.

The peace process and prisoner swaps were high on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda on Tuesday. Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, has been a key mediator on both fronts.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit refused to divulge specifics, but said Netanyahu appears serious about trying to resume negotiations.