Israeli road reopens to Palestinians

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Israel reopened access to a key highway in the West Bank today. It had been off-limits to Palestinian drivers for nine years. Correspondent Linda Gradstein reports from the West Bank.

MARCO WERMAN: The Israeli Army has reopened to Palestinian traffic a highway that had been closed to them for nearly nine years. The move came after an order by the Israeli Supreme Court, but as Linda Gradstein reports from the West Bank village of Beit Sira, for most Palestinians, it's a road to nowhere.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: At 8:00 a.m. Farouk Ankowi was waiting to be the first Palestinian to drive on new reopened Highway 443. It had been almost nine years since Farouk, who is a member of the Beit Sira local council, was on the road. Speaking in fluent Hebrew he learned while working in construction in Israel, Farouk describes his experience at the newly built Israeli check point. It's a gray watch tower topped by a blue and white Israeli flag flapping in the breeze.

INTERPRETER: I went to the soldiers. They said turn off the motor and get out of the car. I felt like a dog. Stand there, I stood. Give me you I.D. card, I gave it. Open the truck, I did. Open the hood, I did that too. Take out the seats. How can I take out the seats I asked them. Finally they let me go.

GRADSTEIN: Farouk drove on Route 443 for about 15 minutes before returning to the village. Because even worse than the security checks, he says, is that for Palestinians, the road goes nowhere. They may not enter Jerusalem without a special permit. And the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Beit Sira gets most of its services, is no closer than before.

INTERPRETER: This new road doesn't really help us much. We all want to go from here to Ramallah. All this does is help us go from our village to a few other villages, like Tira.

GRADSTEIN: Farouk says the long road to Ramallah, which can take up to an hour sometimes, can have fatal consequences. A year and a half ago, he says, his five year old daughter was playing near his house when a door fell on her. It took him over an hour to get to the hospital in Ramallah and his daughter died soon after arriving from loss of blood. The doctor said she might have been saved if he had arrived sooner. Israeli Army spokesman Peter Lerner, who has come to Beit Sira to supervise the opening of the road says the Army has implemented exactly what the court demanded. Lerner says the Army's job is to provide security for everyone who travels on the road.

PETER LERNER: In the past we've had Palestinian terrorists shoot Israelis traveling on this road and this is our primary concern. Drive by shootings or explosive devices that can attack either other commuters or the check points themselves.

GRADSTEIN: From the beginning of the second intifada in the fall of 2000 until 2002, when Israel closed the road to Palestinian traffic, six Israelis were killed in attacks on Highway 443. Lerner says the extensive security checks are to make sure that doesn't happen again. When asked why Palestinians are not allowed to travel through the nearby check point to Ramallah, Lerner says it's up to the Israeli Supreme Court.

LERNER: The Supreme Court actually decided not to intervene on this issue because we also pointed out that there are security concerns and that will breech the whole system of movement and access and therefore create a security concern for Israel.

GRADSTEIN: Privately, Israeli security sources say it would be harder to pursue suspects from the villages if they can reach Ramallah easily. Back in Beit Sira, several drivers underwent the security checks just to do a 15 minute loop on the road. Highway 443, which many Palestinians call "the apartheid highway", has become a symbol of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. We can't really go anywhere one driver said, but it still feels good to go on the road. For The World, I'm Linda Gradstein in Beit Sira, the West Bank.