Paving the Way to an Indivisible Jerusalem

A new highway connecting Jewish neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem is the latest addition to a network of roads making a future division of the city increasingly unlikely.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Sunday joined Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to dedicate Route 20, a highway that connects Jewish neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem and happens to have an interchange named after the prime minister's father, historian Benzion Netanyahu.

"We are working unceasingly, systematically, to link Jerusalem to itself," the prime minister declared.

The road may turn out to be the most important legacy of both generations of Netanyahus in that, as part of the road network encompassing Jerusalem, it could be the nail in the coffin for plans to re-divide the capital and attach its Arab areas to a future Palestinian state.

According to retired Israel Defense Forces Col. Shaul Arieli of the Council for Peace and Security, the construction of the highway constitutes a break with a longstanding policy that left the door open to the re-division of Jerusalem.

"Up to now, the development of Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem was based on maintaining and separating Jewish and Palestinian contiguity," said Arieli, who was a drafter of the Geneva Initiative, an unofficial plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. "In Jerusalem, there are two separate cities each of which has had territorial contiguity. That was the mosaic concept of [late Jerusalem Mayor] Teddy Kollek – that the Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods would be next to each other but not inside each other. This principle was breached by the Israeli transportation network, which will make separation very difficult."

Route 20 was designed to alleviate severe traffic congestion around Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood, but it is also the latest project to make re-division of the city less practicable. The short stretch of highway crosses Jerusalem's Arab Beit Hanina neighborhood to connect the northern Jewish neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze'ev and Neveh Yaakov. Residents of Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank will also benefit from the access the highway provides from the northern Jerusalem neighborhoods to the center of the capital via the Begin Highway.

Actually, the most prominent highway project that would complicate the city's re-division is the route through the southern Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa. The road is designed to serve residents of the Jewish Gilo neighborhood and the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements south of the city. Another road is slated to bisect the Arab Beit Hanina neighborhood to connect the Jewish Ramat Shlomo neighborhood with Route 20. Prior to these recent highway plans, few if any major roads connecting Jerusalem's Jewish neighborhoods went through neighborhoods with Arab populations.

The first real break with the policy came in the 1990s, when small numbers of Jews began to move into entirely Arab neighborhoods, including Silwan, Ras-al-Amud and Jabel Mukaber, though their numbers have remained relatively small.  

According to Arieli, it is hard to overstate the importance of the new roads in undermining the prospect of the re-division of the city and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. All of the proposed peace plans, he said, including the Geneva Initiative and proposals that came out of the United States-brokered summits at Annapolis and Camp David, have provided for the division of Jerusalem and the transfer of control of portions of the city to a Palestinian state.

"Is there anyone who really believes there is a chance for a permanent agreement [with the Palestinians] without a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem?" Arieli asked.

Arieli's views are echoed by Danny Seidemann, an expert on Jerusalem's demography and residential patterns. "I think the purpose of these highways is to clearly integrate the [Jewish] settlement blocs into the national highway network of Israel and thereby place East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs within Israel's de facto borders," he said.

Referring to the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem, Seidemann said, "The significance of Route 20 is that someone departing from the center of Tel Aviv would get to Ma'aleh Adumim more quickly than he would to my [Jerusalem] neighborhood of Arnona."

Sari Kronish of the Israeli human rights group Bimkom said that although it happens that Route 20 will serve residents of Beit Safafa, it clearly was not designed with them in mind.

"If they were planning for the benefit of the Palestinian residents, then these highways have no internal logic. The highway doesn't begin within a Palestinian commercial center and end in a Palestinian neighborhood," she said.

A resident of East Jerusalem’s Beit Safafa overlooking the highway construction works.Credit: Emil Salman