Sunday 17 January 2010

Route 443: Is the High Court Correct?

On 29th December 2009, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the Israel Defence Force (IDF) to reopen Route 443 to Palestinian traffic. The ruling was made in response to a petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) on behalf of the residents of six Palestinian villages who were previously barred from using the road.

Route 443 is officially described as the main road connecting Jerusalem to the city of Modi'in. Perhaps more importantly, the road provides an alternative route between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The primary artery between these two key Israeli hotspots is Route 1, which has become increasingly congested as the volume of traffic between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem continues to grow dramatically. Many of those travelling between the cities choose to use Route 443 in the hope of avoiding the major traffic jams. The controversy surrounding Route 443 centres on a 14 kilometre stretch of the road between the Maccabim Checkpoint near to Modi'in and the Atarot Checkpoint on the north side of Jerusalem which passes through the West Bank.

In the 1980s, the Israeli government upgraded Route 443 spending many millions of Israeli taxpayer Dollars in the process. The plan was to improve it for the use of local traffic for the approximately 35,000 Palestinians living in villages on either side of the road, as well as for traffic travelling between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. When the second intifada broke out in 2000, Route 443 became a target for attacks by Palestinians on Israelis. Despite the erection of anti-sniper barriers along the road, 6 Israelis were killed in incidents of gunfire on Route 443. Three of these casualties were in a single attack when Freda Sawari lost her son, brother and sister-in-law. Numerous other attacks were staged on this road which, thankfully, did not result in casualties. These events prompted the IDF to close the road for use by local Palestinian traffic. Instead, the local traffic was diverted onto 3 alternative roads known as the "fabric of life" roads. There is no doubt that travelling on these alternative roads was far less convenient for the local traffic and ensured that their travel times were extended, sometimes quite considerably. Closures on Route 443 were enforced with physical barriers - concrete blocks and gates - to prevent local traffic from gaining access to the road. Since local traffic was barred from the road, there have been no Israeli casualties on Route 443.

In July 2007, a petition to the High Court of Justice by the local residents to open the road to local traffic was unsuccessful. The court upheld the IDF's right to restrict traffic on the road for a further six months. Despite this ruling, the IDF announced that it would open use of the road to local commercial and public service vehicles during daytime hours. The villagers, however, did not accept this decision. Israel was continually accused of imposing "apartheid" on Route 443 by allowing Israeli traffic to flow while denying the right of local Palestinian traffic to use the road.

This has now been changed by the court December ruling which forces the IDF to open the road for use by Palestinian traffic within 5 months. This will be the first time that it will be open to Palestinian traffic since October 2000. The court ruling was not unanimous by the three justices on the bench. The majority, which included Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and Justice Uzi Fogelman, ruled that the IDF is required to find an alternative way of keeping peace on Route 443. Dissenting Justice Edmond Levey felt that the security on the road was the jurisdiction of the IDF and the Defence Ministry, and that the courts should not intervene in such a matter. Ironically, one week before the ruling, an explosive device was found on the road. This was fortunately discovered in good time and dismantled before it could do any damage.

While I feel proud to live in a democracy where there is always recourse to the courts, even on such serious matters that may affect national security, I do feel on this occasion that the court decision is incorrect. I am not sure that I concur with dissenting Justice Levey's view that this matter is not within the jurisdiction of the courts. On the contrary, I would wish the courts to rule on such matters. I feel on this occasion that the court has not ruled on the side of justice. If enabling local traffic on the road increases the risk of terror attacks, this traffic should not be allowed. I would feel the same about preventing Jewish traffic on the road if the terror attacks were initiated by Jews rather than Palestinians. So far, no Jewish threats have been evident on the road. Even though there continue to be threats on the road since the closure as evidenced by the device found shortly before the court ruling, it is clear that these have been kept to a manageable level to allow passengers to continue to use the road in relative safety. The fact that there have been no casualties since the closure was implemented on the road is, for me, sufficient evidence to prove its value. The road is a public service and should be made available to all law-abiding citizens wishing to use the road for its intended purpose. It would be the ultimate solution if this included the local Palestinian villagers as well as the Israelis passing by.

Since the court ruling, there have been reports of isolated stoning events along Route 443. This is despite the fact that the closure remains in place. It seems as though the ruling has emboldened Palestinians in the area to return to their old ways and this is regrettable. Israeli drivers have responded by staying away from the road in their droves, thereby creating insufferable traffic jams on Route 1. It was quoted recently that a diversion of only 20% of the through traffic from Route 443 to Route 1 would cause a collapse of the main artery.

I agree that the Israeli courts need to be looking after the best interests of all citizens in Israel - Jews and Arabs alike. I also agree that there have been occasions that the IDF has resorted to the "easy solution" in taking care of a complex security situation. Sometimes the easy solution is not the best solution, and the courts do have a role in evaluating this. I sincerely hope, however, that Justices Beinish and Fogelman can see something that I cannot see as to how the IDF may be able to keep the peace on Route 443 while still allowing local traffic on the road. In the meantime, I remain unconvinced and, along with me, the vast majority of the Israeli public. I sincerely hope that we are wrong.

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