The Land of the Traffic Interchange

The Trans-Israel Highway represents a geographic revolution, a delayed reaction to the vision that characterized the early days of the state.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

A trip on the Trans-Israel Highway, whose first 18-kilometer section was dedicated last week, is an amazing encounter with radical change. It is a belated and detailed greeting from another epoch: the overall national planning of the period after the 1948 War of Independence, the laying of the Yarkon-Negev water conduit, the drying of the Huleh swamps, projects that were heroic for their times by any measure and which changed the character of the country all at once.

Tremendous geographic and topographic revolutions are not unknown in Zionism. During the post-Zionist era, it's no wonder that they are a target of penetrating public criticism. "We must shape the character of the State of Israel and prepare it for fulfilling its historic destiny," wrote then prime minister David Ben-Gurion in his diary in 1949. The Trans-Israel Highway is a delayed reaction to that vision, perhaps an unavoidable product of the 1950 "Sharon Plan" (architect Aryeh Sharon) for dispersal of the population, which ironically has been paved in the center of the country, rather than on the periphery.

A trip along the highway between Qalqilyah and Ben Shemen is a trip in the heart of the latest incarnation of the plan for population dispersal: all-embracing dispersal and suburbanization, and unchecked urban sprawl all over. From Rosh Ha'ayin to Petah Tikva, from Shoham to Modi'in, and from there it's not far to the Jerusalem sprawl. Judging by historical precedents, transportation routes - whether public or private - create construction and development. The Trans-Israel Highway will be no exception, but these things are happening even without it. Through the clouds of dust raised by the bulldozers on an exhausting summer day, it isn't hard to see that the center of the country is already one large and formless megalopolis. The question now is whether it will be a good and well-planned city. There is no room in Israel for additional mistakes.

The Trans-Israel Highway passes through the city-state with an amazing Ben Gurion-like stubbornness. There isn't a meter without topographical obstacles, without a need for quarrying, digging, bisecting, tunneling, uprooting, and diverting (of two streams, Shiloh and Gezer). Above the 90 kilometers between Hadera and Gedera, there will be 45 overpasses, an overpass for every two kilometers on the average, and over 50 underpasses. An especially desperate effort is the link to Highway No. 1, whose route will pass through a concrete-reinforced canyon 18 meters deep. This is the land of the interchanges, which arouses fear and amazement.

The highway cuts across a section of open, natural landscape, among the largest and most beautiful in the center of the country, and there have been protests, perhaps justified, by landscape-lovers and environmentalists. But it also baldly exposes the illusion of open spaces which misled Israel from the beginning. Open spaces in Israel are a fantasy at best, or this could be a plan for embarking on another war.

The best architects and landscape experts in Israel were enlisted for work and advice on the Trans-Israel Highway. In this way, they were also neutralized and could not express opposition to it. In any case, the important decisions were taken by transportation engineers. The highway was planned and approved by means of a special law, which circumvented local and regional committees, a law less democratic even than the usual planning procedures. In any case, those responsible for the landscaping could only try to minimize the damage. In large part, their attempts have been successful. The bridges, the lights, the guard rails "belong to one design family," according to architects Tamar Darel-Fusfeld and Micha Wertheim, who are supervising the landscaping and architecture all along the highway.

The sides of the highway were not left to chance. There are still no plastic bags stuck to the fences. The restoration of the rock quarrying is occasionally reminiscent of scenery for an old-fashioned Hollywood Bible epic, but a great deal of money and attention seem to have been invested. The difference between the Trans-Israel and many other highways that had to make do with a skimpy public budget, is like the difference between private and public medical care. That's another one of the unforgivable gaps typical of privatization.

Privatization is only one of the concepts linked to the Trans-Israel which will undoubtedly occupy many researchers, not necessarily in the field of transportation and environment. Critics in the field of culture cannot help but pay attention to the hidden monitoring mechanisms that turn the highway into one of the largest and most sophisticated sites for monitoring and control. Sensors scattered along it as part of the toll collection system, and 21 cameras positioned at the monitoring center at the Nahshonim interchange, sense and see everything. The 120 shift workers receive, keep tabs on, document and interpret all information - who is driving, at what speed, from where, to where, when. Already during the first days, the cameras picked up on a surprising phenomenon - the theft of Israeli flags hung for decoration during the opening ceremony. Perhaps not by chance, the director of the company that operates the highway is former chief of police, Inspector General Yehuda Wilk.

Students of culture will note the attempts to camouflage the dominating presence of the highway, and to get it to blend in with the natural landscape, which has disappeared; the planting local wild plants along the route, which have been artificially doctored for the flowering to suit the needs of the landscape design; the replanting of mature trees uprooted from their natural environment; the planting of sabra cactus between the curves of the asphalt, to substitute for the destroyed landscape of sabra hedges, vestiges of Palestinian villages that were once located here - a substitution provoking sad and critical thoughts. Among the successes in the attempt to blend in, is the aesthetic design and hidden location of the watchtowers in the wall on the seam line. One barely notices them. In future, the line will be manned by tanks as well, but there is no way of hiding them, says Darel-Fusfeld.

Authentic and not

The ancient olive press merits a critical discussion in itself. Such a discussion will undoubtedly help in analyzing the somewhat hackneyed issue of original versus forgery, authenticity versus fabrication. The vestiges of the olive press were discovered in the Ben Shemen area, but for the sake of convenience, they were moved several kilometers south to the Nahshonim interchange, where they were assembled and rebuilt as an authentic, but fake, archeological site. Due to a shortage of stone and of Palestinian labor, noteworthy efforts were made to create an artistic forgery of natural stone in order to build acoustic supporting walls. In any case, at a speed of 110 kilometers per hour, the difference is hard to detect. The fake stone, a local invention unique to the Trans-Israel Highway, is supposed to create a real sense of "place."

In honor of the opening of the Trans-Israel Highway, it may be worth mentioning the 50th anniversary of the opening of another highway, the New Jersey Turnpike, which was marked a few months ago in the United States. When it was built, it was considered one of the greatest engineering feats of its time, a lever for prosperity and economic development, and a final solution to transportation problems. It was hugely successful. From the beginning, the highway was crowded with as many cars as had been expected 30 years from then. The highway was widened several times, but the traffic only worsened. Unfortunately, within a short time, instead of "a window to the beautiful New Jersey landscape," the highway became its backyard. It split towns in half, trampled agricultural fields, and industrial plants and slums were built all along it. Now the wheel has come full circle, and the highway is enjoying renewed appreciation and is admired as a piece of nostalgia.

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