Edmund Sanders
The Los Angeles Times
January 10, 2010 - 1:00am

Reporting from Highway 443, West Bank — Cruising down this disputed four-lane highway, with all its twists and turns, is like taking a road trip through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You pass the walls and barriers that keep Palestinians from accessing Highway 443 as it slices through their land. Then there are the hazardous corridors where Israeli drivers have been shot and killed.

On one side is an Israeli settlement mushrooming on a hill. Turn the other way for a glimpse of an Israeli detention center for Palestinian prisoners. Dotting the way are posters protesting an Israeli court decision last week to reopen the road to Palestinians by May.

The images blur past, like a surreal amusement park ride, revealing -- in less than 15 miles of asphalt -- many of the core issues, competing needs and deep-seated fears of Israelis and Palestinians.

For many, the journey down Highway 443 begins near Israel's imposing Kalandia checkpoint, located at what Israel considers the northern tip of Jerusalem but what Palestinians and the international community say is part of the West Bank.

The access road to Highway 443 hugs Israel's 20-foot-high barrier and then diverts into a corridor lined on both sides with walls of concrete and brick.

The walls are painted in parts with murals of archways that open onto imaginary blue skies and green pastures. Israel says the corridors protect drivers from snipers. Palestinians say the decorated walls hide their villages so drivers don't have to look at them.

The route itself may date to ancient times, but it was substantially enlarged in the 1980s. Palestinians whose land was seized to build the road complained to the Supreme Court, but judges at the time ruled that the confiscation of the occupied land was legal because the highway would chiefly benefit Palestinians living in the hilltop villages along the way.

For years, it did. Thousands of Palestinians used Highway 443 daily to access Ramallah and other West Bank towns.

Today, they can only look down at the well-kept road. Even walking along the shoulder is prohibited. Instead, Highway 443 is used chiefly by Israeli settlers and commuters looking for a shortcut from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv through the West Bank.

In the first mile of Highway 443, there were several fatal attacks against Israelis between 2000 and 2002. At least five people were killed in total.

Driving instructor Eli Cohen, a 30-year-old father, was killed in 2000 after his car was sprayed with bullets. Though shot multiple times, he survived long enough to drive to the nearest settlement before he lost consciousness and crashed.

There have been no fatal sniper attacks since the highway was closed to Palestinians in 2002, but risks are ever-present. Almost daily, youths throw stones at passing cars.

Last week, Israeli police say, they found a hidden explosive device by the side of the road.

Memories of the Jewish blood spilled on this highway have led some Israelis, including family members of those killed, to come out strongly against reopening the road to Palestinians.

Saying last week's ruling turns a drive down Highway 443 into a game of Russian roulette, some conservative lawmakers are moving to annex the highway to Israel.

Days after the ruling, posters began appearing along the road, taking aim at Israel's Supreme Court chief, Dorit Beinisch. "Dear Driver, Beware," the signs read. "Beinisch is endangering your life on Route 443."

As you pass the posters and Israeli settlements, you begin to notice something strange about Highway 443: Most of the exit ramps are blocked off.

Though there are still roadside signs in Arabic, directing travelers to exit for Palestinian villages, the off-ramps end abruptly in concrete blocks, metal gates, chain fences or piles of trash.

Palestinians must use separate roads that wind through the adjacent mountains and duck under the freeway.

Though many of the back roads were recently paved, Palestinians say trips to reach their farms and other West Bank cities take two or three times as long.

The only places for drivers to get on or off are at Israeli settlements or military bases.

Highway 443's journey through Palestinian-dominated territory comes to an end in the Israeli city of Modiin, with its shopping centers and apartment complexes, just over the so-called Green Line that marks Israel's border before the 1967 Middle East War.

The Supreme Court's decision, which held that Israeli security concerns on the road no longer support a blanket ban on Palestinians, may be aimed at building a bridge between these two worlds. So far, it has only exposed raw emotions.

For Israelis, the reopening of Highway 443 to Palestinians raises fears of renewed terrorist attacks and drive-by shootings in a society still traumatized by the threat of suicide bombers and missiles.

To Palestinians, Highway 443 is a paved manifestation of what they call Israel's system of "apartheid" that forces them to drive on different roads, live in separate towns and stay hidden behind giant walls.

Gideon Levy, a liberal columnist for Israel's Haaretz newspaper, wrote last week that the debate over Highway 443 has sparked a national soul-searching over how Israel will balance security with democracy.

Recounting his personal dilemma as a driver of whether to boycott Highway 443 or suffer through traffic jams on another road, Levy admitted that he sometimes opts for a faster, guilt-ridden ride on Highway 443.

"I have driven," he wrote, "and cried."


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