Palestinians face more restrictions than ever

The Israeli authorities have been ordered by the High Court to give a formal explanation of why an important highway running from Jerusalem through the occupied West Bank has been barred to Palestinians living in the area.

The Israeli High Court ruled yesterday that the state - in this instance the Israeli military - has to explain why Route 443 is in practice barred to Palestinians and why roadblocks preventing access to the road from Palestinian villages along the route have not been dismantled.

While it only concerns a single stretch of road, the petition from the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (Acri) in several respects goes to the heart of the heavy restrictions on Palestinian movement and access in much of the West Bank. This is graphically illustrated in a UN map showing road closures and territory - about 40 per cent of the West Bank- which are either barred or heavily restricted for Palestinians, severing the sectors of the West Bank from each other, and from Jerusalem.

The map highlights restrictions imposed by the barrier and road closures largely to protect Jewish settlements, and the unimpeded travel of settlers in the West Bank, resulting in what critics call the "cantonisation" of the territory into enclaves separated from each other and Jerusalem. Closures imposed since the intifada began in 2000 mean that Palestinians are probably more restricted now than at any time during the past 40 years.

The ruling follows a petition by Acri against the almost seven-year de facto ban on behalf of the 25,000 residents of six Palestinian villages near the road who are forced on to poor backways rather than the highway through the West Bank towards Ramallah, which had served them since the British mandate.

Route 443 is popular among Israeli commuters as it provides a fast connection between Jerusalem and the Israeli town of Modin and is often used as an alternative route between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Controversy intensified after the daily newspaper Ha'aretz discovered that there was no specific legal order underpinning the ban. The Ministry of Defence said at the time that the road was open to Palestinians who passed inspection at checkpoints, but this in practice applies only to drivers with special permits.

Feeder roads are invariably blocked with boulders, concrete blocks or iron gates. After Acri applied to the military for the route to be opened to Palestinians, officials in its civil administration offered the council head at one of the villages, Beit Sira, transit permits for some taxi owners there. The head of the village council, Ali Abu Tsafya insisted that the road be opened to all residents and since then there have been no further meetings.

Route 443 is unusual among West Bank main roads as it used not only by West Bank settlers but large volumes of Israeli traffic travelling through occupied territory to and from destinations in Israel proper.

The military said yesterday the barriers had been erected because of "numerous terrorist attacks" on the road and because they were security related did not require an order to be issued. The court ruling was being "evaluated" and a final position would be give to the court in two months.

Yoav Loeff, a spokesman for Acri, said yesterday that it was not ignoring security considerations but said the army had ample alternative means to enforce security without operating a blanket ban, which violated the international legal rights of the original users of the route. Residents had to use routes which were longer, sometimes dangerous, and more costly for those using taxis."It makes the movement of goods more costly so has an economic effect and it can endanger life for emergency cases who may take an hour to get to hospital instead of 15 minutes," he said.

"We do not use the word apartheid in court but it is difficult to find another term for roads that can be used only for Israelis." About 260,000 settlers live in the West Bank and another 190,000 Jewish residents live in occupied Arab East Jerusalem in housing built since the 1967 war. The World Bank last month largely blamed restrictions on movement of Palestinian goods and people for the devastation of the West Bank economy.

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