Israel is expected to approve Wednesday a plan to expropriate 68 dunams (17 acres) of land owned by Palestinians to widen a West Bank road that connects a central Israeli city to some Jewish settlements.
The anticipated move will take place just one day before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's meeting with President Joe Biden in Washington on Thursday.
In the coming years, construction of 5,650 apartments is slated to take place in the settlements near the road. The plan is opposed by 35 Palestinian plant nursery owners, whose lands will be expropriated for the highway construction.
Kaed Atta has managed gardening centers for 38 years and since 2000, has owned one on Route 55. He stands to lose 26 dunams. His nursery replaced another one that was razed by the Israel Defense Forces in November 2000. In January, a military judge ordered the army to pay him and the owners of two other nurseries it destroyed 3.5 million shekels (about $1 million) in damages.
Atta says these nurseries employ hundreds of Palestinians, including 85 who work for him at his center. Atta says he doesn’t oppose the road expansion, but it will hurt the nurseries. “They say they’ll do it so that it doesn’t cause damage, but I’ll just disappear,” he says. “First they destroyed our nursery in 2000, and now they want to take our land, but I’ll do all I can to stay there.”
Atta says that of all the options presented to them by the Higher Planning Committee, this one will hurt nursery owners the most, since it will distance the centers from the highway. He and the other owners proposed to the relevant planning committee an alternative that would have expropriated only 29 dunams. It was rejected after the committee decided it would cost too much and raised some safety concerns.
The committee noted that solving the problem of the nurseries is part of a broader project to sort out Route 55, “one of the key roads in Judea and Samaria, serving both [Palestinian and Israeli] populations, almost without restrictions.” The committee also noted that expanded service roads are needed due to heavy equipment traffic. The committee refused to relate new plans for the nurseries, arguing that this was not under its purview.
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The Civil Administration’s higher planning committee discussed the nursery owners’ objections a year ago, and rejected them last week, with a meeting for final approval scheduled for this week. Part of the decision included a reduction of the extent of expropriations from 88 to 68 dunams. Lawyers for the appellants say this was a snap process and that usually it takes weeks or months between the rejection of an appeal and the convening of a final meeting.
Expropriating land for public use in the West Bank should also serve the Palestinian population. But in practice, this stretch of highway is one to which Palestinians have no access. According to the plan, Palestinians will be able to use the road, which will expedite the connection between Kfar Sava and the settlements. The project also includes an expansion of the adjacent city of Qalqilya, but this has been frozen for years.
Route 55 is being expanded in stretches by the Civil Administration and the National Transport Infrastructure Company. It begins on Route 6 and ends on Route 60, deep in the West Bank. The project was promoted for years by the Yesha Council of settlements. It calls the road important, linking Kfar Sava, through Karnei Shomron, to its connection with Route 60, after passing by Kedumim.
For its part, the Coordinator of Government Activities In The Territories issued the following response: "Due to safety and transportation hazards on Route 55, the company Netivei Israel advanced, in coordination with the Civil Administration, a highway expansion plan, which in the future should result in improved infrastructure in the area and a reduction in traffic congestion, and as part of which, access roads leading to nurseries along the highway.
Nursery owners and Palestinian residents were party to the planning. Ultimately, some of them lodged objections to the plan, which were considered and rejected by the authorized planning bodies, which found that the extent of the required expropriation could be reduced by 15 dunams.
Later on, COGAT followed up, saying that "Naturally, the process of investigating objections is the longest and most complex part of the planning process, and its duration in this case attests to the in-depth consideration given by planning authorities to the objections raised by those who oppose the plan.
"Thus, other alternatives for improving the infrastructure at the site were indeed examined and were found to be irrelevant from a transportation perspective. Every application for a permit for Palestinian nursery workers is examined individually, and in accordance with procedures."