Matrix of new highways could pave the way for massive settlement growth

AP – In the coming years, Israelis will be able to reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from settlements deep in the West Bank via highways, tunnels and viaducts that cut a wide swath around Palestinian cities.

Rights groups say the new roads will set the stage for explosive settlement growth, even if the incoming US administration somehow convinces Israel to curb housing construction. The expensive infrastructure projects signal that Israel intends to conserve large swathes of the land in any peace deal, and would make it more difficult to establish a viable Palestinian state.

“It’s not about a hundred more homes there or here,” said Yehuda Shaul, an Israeli activist who has spent months researching and mapping the new projects. “This is a de facto steroid annexation.”

Construction is already underway on a huge tunnel that Shaul says will one day allow residents of Maale Adumim, a settlement city east of Jerusalem, to enter the city and continue to Tel Aviv without go through a military checkpoint or even hit a traffic light.

South of Jerusalem, work is underway to extend the main road leading to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc and settlements further south, with tunnels and viaducts designed to bypass Palestinian villages and refugee camps.

View of a road in the West Bank, south of Jerusalem, November 29, 2020 (AP Photo / Majdi Mohammed)

Palestinians will be allowed to drive on most of the new roads, but the infrastructure leading into Israel will be of limited use to them as they need permits to enter the country.

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the Six Day War in 1967 and has since built a vast network of settlements that are home to some 400,000 Jewish settlers (nearly 700,000, including the Jewish quarters of East Jerusalem, which Israel does not consider to be settlements). The Palestinians want these territories for a future state and view the settlements as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace – a position with broad international support.

Supporters of the settlements regard the West Bank and Jerusalem as the historical and biblical heart of Israel and oppose any future partition of the Holy Land.

But most Israelis live and work in the main cities, uncomfortable living deep in the West Bank, where two-lane roads pass through military checkpoints and Palestinian villages, and where clashes and Stone throws can explode at any time.

The new roads promise to change all that, turning currently isolated settlements into affordable suburban communities with safe and easy access to cities and public transportation. Shaul estimates that the new infrastructure could facilitate plans for more than 50,000 settler housing in the West Bank and another 6,000 in East Jerusalem.

“People don’t bring the roads, the roads bring people,” he said.

Breaking the Silence founder Yehuda Shaul. (flickr / Eoghan Rice / Trócaire)

Shaul is a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who document alleged human rights violations by the IDF. In recent months, he has turned his attention to Israeli planning.

Its findings are based on the minutes of several meetings held in recent years by parliamentary sub-committees tasked with improving infrastructure in the West Bank. He also cites a strategic plan presented by Transport Minister Miri Regev, a strong supporter of settlements, to a group of settlement mayors last month.

In a statement after the meeting, Regev called the day “an exciting day for the settlements and for the State of Israel, which is building and building in all regions of the homeland.” She said this provided a “holistic vision” for “a future development plan for the region”.

The Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment.

Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat settlement in the West Bank, who attended the meeting, said the draft plan was “very comprehensive” and the ministry was open to suggestions, “taking into account the needs of both. populations, both Jews and Arabs.

He said US President Donald Trump’s plan for the Middle East, which would allow Israel to annex about a third of the West Bank, including all of its settlements, proved that settlements are not an obstacle to peace. . This plan was immediately rejected by the Palestinians and is likely to be abandoned by President-elect Joe Biden, who opposes annexation.

Settler leaders at the Independence Day celebration of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv on July 3, 2017. (LR) Mayor of Ariel Eliyahu Shaviro, Mayor of Efrat Oded Ravivi, director General of Yesha Shiloh Adler and Mayor of Ma’ale Adumim Benny Kasriel. (Courtesy: Yesha Council)

Alon Cohen Lifshitz, expert at Bimkom, an Israeli advocacy group that focuses on urban planning, said the main goal of road projects is to create a “control matrix” that ensures the free movement of Israelis throughout. by further fragmenting the areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority.

“Most of the settlers are not [ideological]. They are looking for options to live their dream in affordable housing, ”he said. “This is the main obstacle to the expansion of settlements. “

The same process unfolded on a much smaller scale more than a decade ago, when Israel opened Highway 398, connecting settlements in the southern West Bank to Jerusalem. Informally known as “Liberman Road,” after former Transport Minister Avigdor Liberman, who lives in one of the settlements south of Jerusalem, it cut driving time from 40 minutes to 10 minutes. The area’s settler population nearly doubled over the next six years, to around 6,000, according to Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog.

Many Palestinians see the roads as another kind of barrier erected to separate communities from each other and farmers from their land. They say much of the construction is on land expropriated from farmers, who have little hope of recourse to Israeli courts.

“It is a military occupation, so when they take a decision, they impose it by force, without any coordination with the other party, with the owners of the land,” said Mohammed Sabateen, head of the local council of Husan, a Palestinian. village south of Jerusalem sandwiched between a growing settlement and one of the new road projects.

“These roads are primarily designed for Israelis and settlers, not for Palestinians,” he said. The military can also cut off access to Palestinians at any time by closing doors at major access points.

View of a road in the West Bank, November 29, 2020 (AP Photo / Majdi Mohammed)

Israel is also working on so-called “fabric of life” routes intended to benefit Palestinians, but Shaul says these are generally aimed at moving them away from settlements. One has been dubbed the “apartheid road” because it runs along a road open only to Israelis, and the two are separated by a massive concrete wall.

Biden pledged to work with Israel and the Palestinians to restart the peace talks, without giving many details. He may be taking a similar approach to the Obama administration, which urged Israel to freeze or curb settlement growth as part of unsuccessful peace efforts.

But even if Biden succeeds in convincing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to temporarily curb settlement growth, the road infrastructure would ensure high demand once the break is over.

“The second the freeze is over, that infrastructure will be there to facilitate even greater growth,” said Shaul, who believes stopping road projects is essential to preserving hope for a two-state solution. “This would be the basis for the development of the settlements for the next 20 years. “

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