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From the field

Route 443 – West Bank road for Israelis only

Route 443 is the main road linking Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements with the bloc of Modi'in communities and the Tel Aviv area in central Israel . The route serves some 40,000 vehicles daily and is an alternate route to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Road (Highway No. 1), which is generally crowded. Israel paved the road in the 1980s, using 14 kilometers of an existing route in the West Bank as part of it. This 14-kilometer stretch, which is about half the length of the entire road, served for decades as the main Palestinian traffic artery in the southern Ramallah District, dating back to Mandatory times. As it passes through the centers of villages lying southwest of Ramallah, it served tens of thousands of Palestinians on their way between the city and the villages.

To pave this part of the road, Israel expanded the existing route by expropriating thousands of dunams of public and private land belonging to Palestinian residents of villages in the area. The landowners filed a petition against the action to the High Court of Justice, which approved the expropriations. The court accepted the army's contention that the road was intended to meet Palestinian needs, since the roads in the West Bank were outdated and no longer sufficient, given the sharp increase in the number of motor vehicles and laborers who travelled on these roads to work in Israel .

Forbidding Palestinians from using the road

In 2002, following several cases of Palestinian gunfire at Israeli vehicles on the road,  in which six Israeli citizens and one resident of East Jerusalem were killed, Israel prohibited Palestinians from using the road, by vehicle or on foot, for whatever purpose, including transport of goods or for medical emergencies. Local Palestinians travelling to Ramallah and between the villages had to return to using the same roads that Israel had claimed, 20 years earlier, were unfit for the growing volume of traffic. The alternative route is a worn and winding road that passes through a tunnel under Route 443 and through the villages themselves. It is much longer than the original road and is supposed to serve all the 35,000 villagers in the area.

The prohibition on Palestinian travel on Route 443 was implemented first by placing physical obstructions - iron gates, concrete blocks, checkpoints, or a combination of these - and later by army patrols, which punished Palestinians who violated the prohibition. Subsequently, the Israel Police also began to enforce the prohibition, issuing tickets, on one pretext or another, to Palestinians using the road. Checkpoints were erected at either end of the road - (Maccabim Checkpoint where it enters Israeli territory and Atarot Checkpoint where it enters Jerusalem 's jurisdictional area.

Travel on Route 443 is crucial to the Palestinian villagers living along it. For many of them, this is the way to their farmland, which lies on both sides of the road. It is also the primary access road to Ramallah, the city on which the villagers rely for commerce and for their health and education needs. Many of the villagers also have family and social ties with residents of Ramallah. As a result of the prohibition, more than 100 small shops in villages along its route have closed since 2002, among them floor-tile establishments, flower shops, furniture stores, and restaurants.

After receiving much criticism for closing the road to Palestinian travel, Israel built three roads in 2007 and 2008, which it referred to as "fabric of life" roads. These roads are intended for Palestinians alone and are meant to serve as a substitute connection between the villages and Ramallah. However, paving these roads generated further violation of human rights: to build them, additional land was expropriated from Palestinian villages and villagers. Although these alternate roads improved villagers' access to Ramallah, they were inferior in quality to Route 443. For example, parts of the "fabric of life" road between Beit Ur al-Fauqa and Bitunya collapsed during last winter's rains and were closed to traffic.

Petition to the High Court of Justice

In June 2007, residents of the six villages near Route 443, represented by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel , petitioned the High Court of Justice to open the road to Palestinians. The petitioners contended that closing the road infringed the human rights of Palestinians, violated a previous judgment of the court, exceeded the authority of the military commander, and improperly discriminated against Palestinians.

Some two and a half years later, in late December 2009, the High Court ruled , by majority vote, that the total ban on Palestinian travel on the segment of the road running through the West Bank must be lifted. Justice Uzi Fogelman, who wrote the majority opinion, held that the military commander did not have the authority to impose such a ban and that, in any case, the ban was disproportionate given the real harm to the residents of the Palestinian villages alongside the road. The court gave the army five months to formulate a different solution for protecting Israelis travelling on the road.

Implementation of the High Court's decision

Despite Justice Fogelman's important principled determination, the decision did not clearly instruct the army how to implement the judgment. Also, the court rejected the villagers' demand that it order the army to open the route leading to Bitunya, which links the villages with Ramallah.

The army proposed new traffic arrangements that still exclude Palestinians from the road, rendering the judgment meaningless. These include establishment of two new checkpoints - next to the Ofer army base and next to Maccabim - where, according to the army's announcement , a careful check will be made of Palestinian vehicles wanting to use the road. In addition, the army will remove the physical obstructions from four access roads linking Palestinian villages with the road. The arrangements do enable Palestinians to travel between the villages in the area, but still prevent them from using Route 443 as the main artery to Ramallah . In this way, the army continues to improperly discriminate against Palestinians, whose use of the road is greatly limited, while Israelis are permitted to travel along it freely .

Israel has the right and the duty to protect the lives of every person in territory under its effective control, and has the authority to impose restrictions on the movement of residents of the Occupied Territories . However, this applies only when the restrictions are vital for imperative and urgent military needs, and are proportionate. It appears that neither the sweeping prohibition on Palestinian use of Route 443 in the past nor the new arrangements meet these conditions, especially since other roads in the West Bank are open to Palestinian traffic, although shooting incidents have taken place there in the past. In addition, it appears that this prohibition serves more than only military needs. If Israel , in good faith, wanted only to protect the lives of Israelis travelling along the road, it could restrict or even forbid its citizens from using the road, while building roads and creating alternate means of transportation within its territory.

Route 443 is just one example of Israeli probation on Palestinian travel in the West Bank . However, unlike roads well within the West Bank, Route 443 is used daily by thousands of Israelis on their way between towns inside Israel .

B'Tselem calls on the Israeli authorities to immediately cancel the restrictions on travel on Route 443 and to allow Palestinians free use of the road .