Highways to Annexation: Across the West Bank, Israel Is Bulldozing a Bright Future for Jewish Settlers

What lies behind the extensive West Bank road plans? Another step towards expanding settlements

The Tunnel Road, as seen from Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood.
The Tunnel Road, as seen from Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, December 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf

In an alternative reality, Route 55 could have been a symbol of coexistence. It stretches from the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank to Kfar Sava northeast of Tel Aviv, and on the West Bank side of the road it is used by both motorists with yellow Israeli license plates and white Palestinian ones. It’s as if it were natural that the residents of the Palestinian town of Qalqilyah and the nearby Jewish settlements would be spending time together.

The road has one lane in each direction, but it will soon look different: it’s slated to be upgraded and widened. But the not-so-small details of the project reveal which motorists it seeks to benefit.

About 1,600 housing units are currently in various stages of advancement in the settlements around this road. It’s part of a wider trend of road development throughout the West Bank, the product of efforts by various local municipal heads, all of them Jewish.

“Next to a highway there’s always a house,” said Shlomo Ne’eman, the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, in explaining the logic behind for the new roads. “The highways are 100 percent an engine for development.”

An Israeli soldier is crossing Route 60 near Al-Arroub, last week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The statement appears to reflect what is currently guiding developments beyond the Green Line. Although when talking about the settlement enterprise the usual focus would be construction of housing and expanding the territory of the settlements themselves, in recent years, settlement leaders have increasingly been setting their sights on developing a highway network in the West Bank. And it’s paying off.

Dozens of plans for highway construction projects have been drafted and various projects have already gotten underway. But all of this has been just a preview for last month’s announcement by the Transportation Ministry of a highway and transportation master plan through 2045, the first of its kind for the West Bank. If there are no major surprises, the plan is expected to get final approval in the near future.

A source involved in the plan told Haaretz that what is new in the proposal is that it links up with the master plan within the Green Line – in Israel proper. Beyond the rhetorical level, it reflects a change in approach by Israeli officials, who up to now had avoided including the West Bank in long-term planning.

“For close to 50 years, the State of Israel has not planned in Judea and Samaria,” said Yigal Dilmoni, the director of the Yesha Council of settlements, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names. “All of the master plans left Judea and Samaria as a black hole.”

According to those involved in developing it, the new plan creates a network of east-west and north-south highways. Some will be entirely new while other plans involve the widening of existing roads. On paper, they are to benefit all the residents of the West Bank, both Jewish and Palestinian, but an unstated aspect of the plan is the expansion of the settlements themselves. It complements a Yesha Council plan from last year to boost the Jewish population of the West Bank to a million people in 15 years.

From a wider perspective, it can be viewed as an annexation plan of a different kind – one involving the creation of infrastructure rather than a diplomatic initiative to bring about actual Israeli annexation of the settlements. “When a Tel Aviv resident drives to the Golan Heights, he [will be able to] get on Route 5 and drive north [through the West Bank] on Route 90,” Dilmoni said in describing how the highway network would turn the West Bank into an integral part of Israel – physically and conceptually. “The goal is to think holistically about this region as part of Israel’s living space.”

Palestinian youth stand near an Israeli soldier, near Al-Arroub, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The approach comes as little surprise to Yehuda Shaul, the author of the report “Highway to Annexation,” which was written with assistance from the groups Peace Now and Kerem Navot and provides details about Israeli plans for highways in the West Bank. “Everyone thinks that the annexation of the West Bank was frozen with the signing of the normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates,” Shaul said, “but in reality, Israel continues to speed ahead on the highway to annexation of the West Bank through infrastructure development that will help double the number of settlers, and in the process entrench our control over the Palestinian people forever.”

But the Palestinians, through whose territory the highways would cross, were not involved in preparing the master plan. That’s despite the fact that on the declarative level, they are supposed to benefit from the roads. Officially it cannot be otherwise. Expropriation of privately-owned Palestinian land is legal only if the general population (and not just Israelis) uses it.

But in addition to the issue of who would be using the highways, there are other questions, such as whom the roads are planned for and what the aim is. “It’s understood that the goal of the master plan is to use highways running widthwise to link the Jordan Valley, the mountain [region] and the coastal [Mediterranean] area,” said Prof. Rassem Khamaisi, an urban planner in the geography department of the University of Haifa. “It connects the settlements to the center of Israel on one hand and limits the development of Palestinian communities on the other. I call it creeping functional annexation.”

Khamaisi, who is responsible for several master plans for Palestinian communities in the West Bank, said the fact that the agencies that have signed onto the West Bank highway master plan are only Israeli is a more important indication than anything else, but so is the plan’s content. Planning with an aim to benefit the Palestinians, he says, would have created a network of roads linking East Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem, or Jenin, Tul Karm and the Nabi Saleh area.

Together but separate

It’s already possible to say that in addition to shared highways in the West Bank, there are two separate highway networks – one for Israelis and the other for Palestinians. They are not declared as such, of course, but that is the situation in practice. While Palestinians frequently find themselves using old roads from community to community (or highways for their exclusive use), over the years, more and more bypass roads to skirt Palestinian towns have been built for Israelis. Palestinians use most of these roads too, but the settlers are the ones demanding them. At this point, there are only a few roads that residents of settlements are “forced” to use within Palestinian villages. And in the coming years, Israelis will have alternatives to those roads as well. Projects are already underway to bypass the Palestinian refugee camp Al-Aroub and the village of Hawara, both along Route 60.

From the Palestinian standpoint, there is a price to be paid for both of these projects in the form of land. The Al-Aroub Bypass Road will involve the expropriation of 401 dunams (100 acres) of their land, while in Hawara, it’s 406 dunams. “They’ve uprooted hundreds of the village residents’ trees,” said Hawara Mayor Nasser al-Hawari, “and they will also be blocking off an additional 150 meters on each side of the road for security reasons, which the residents will have permission to cultivate only in coordination with the Israeli army.”

A Palestinian man riding a horse near the contruction site of the Eastern Ring Road. A small part of the road is already open and has been dubbed Apartheid Road.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

There are other negative repercussions. Al-Hawari said the new highway will cause economic damage to the village because shops and restaurants that line the old road currently serve both Palestinians and settlers who use it. “We have no problem with a highway if it’s built for everyone,” he said, “but here on one hand, they are expropriating land from me and on the other hand, no one is thinking to permit us to develop around the new highway, to open stores or gas stations and to profit from it too.”

In fact, those planning the road appear to have been thinking about benefitting Israeli motorists. In October, 775 new housing units in Jewish settlements in the Hawara area were approved. Now the heads of the settlements think the way has been paved to expand the number of new homes. Yossi Dagan, the head of the Samaria Regional Council in the northern West Bank, said the bypass road will turn the communities there into a “drawing card for tens of thousands of Israelis.”

Qassem Awad, from the Palestinian office that monitors the settlements, knows exactly what Dagan was referring to. The highway is ordinarily meant to serve the distant settlements of Elon Moreh, Yitzhar and Itamar, he said. “They have already told us in the past that they are expropriating land for everyone’s benefit, and that they repaired the highways,” he said. “These repairs didn’t change how I as a Palestinian move around because the priority in the planning was for the settlers.”

Awad has another worry: that the settlers will not only be given priority but also have exclusive use of the highway at times, whether during periods of tension or routinely. Hawara’s mayor shares these concerns. “At first, they always say the highway will be shared and will be for everyone’s benefit,” he said, “but something small related to security happens and they close it.”

That’s based on past precedent, with the most obvious example being the Nablus Bypass Road, which was built in the late 1990s for all of the residents of the West Bank. But after the second intifada, changes were made to the traffic flow. Now there is an army position at the entrance to the road outside Nablus. Soldiers there only allow the residents of Awarta, a Palestinian village close to the road entrance, to use it. From there the road leads to the settlement of Itamar – the stretch of highway that Palestinians are not allowed to use.

As a result, a road that actually could have helped the residents of several Palestinian villages, including Beit Furik and Beit Dajan, to avoid traffic jams in Nablus and more quickly reach the southern West Bank are in practice barred from using it.

And while that highway is closed to them, other roads that the Palestinians want are not being built. Awad and Al-Hawari said that on many occasions, Israel has stood in the way of the Palestinian Authority’s plans for building new highways or upgrading the existing ones. “If the Palestinian Authority wants to build a road in Area C, which is 62 percent of the West Bank,” the Hawara mayor said, referring to the part of the West Bank under full Israeli civil and military control, “it can’t without Israel’s approval.”

One example is the Aqraba-Nablus highway, which was built during the British Mandate period and needs to be upgraded and widened to make travel between the Nablus area and Jericho easier. Awad said that when the Palestinian Authority undertook to repair the road, the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank impounded construction equipment.

“We’re the majority here, after all,” Al-Hawari, added. “If they wanted to do something for us, they needed to talk to us, but for Israel, we don’t exist.”

On one subject, however, it appears that the Palestinians do exist – the issue of road safety. Everyone seems to agree that the situation on the roads in the West Bank is very bad, as is also reflected in the traffic accidents there.

For example, the Israeli State Comptroller’s Office issued a report this year with a sub-chapter devoted to Route 55 in the West Bank, which the report says is considered a particularly problematic highway by the Israeli police. According to the data, there have been hundreds of accidents on it in the past five years; between 2018 and 2019, three people were killed in accidents and another 17 were seriously injured. And these are very incomplete figures – they don’t include accidents which involved only Palestinian vehicles.

The entrance to the Nablus Bypass Road, with a sign saying Palestinians vehicles are only allowed to turn left.Credit: Meged Gozani

As part of the settlers’ lobbying to develop the network of West Bank highways, they argued that data should also be collected on accidents only involving Palestinians. Municipal leaders from the settlements told Israel’s National Road Safety Authority that due to the absence of such figures, the expansion and improvement of highways in the area was made a low Israeli national priority. But things have changed recently and the Road Safety Authority has altered its procedures, boosting the West Bank accident statistics by a factor of 1.5 to account for the absence of figures on accidents involving only Palestinian vehicles.

The new suburbs

For settlement residents, highway construction serves the additional goal of easing their access beyond the Israeli security fence and into Israel proper. Stated differently, it would turn the settlements into desirable suburban areas with access to centers of employment, similar to the Sharon region north of Tel Aviv area.

“Every settlement regional council in Judea and Samaria relies on a metropolitan center for employment or hospitals,” former Knesset member Moti Yogev noted. “There is a lot of traffic in the morning because the metropolitan [region] outside [the West Bank] is still stronger.”

Yogev, a resident of the settlement of Dolev northwest of Ramallah, speaks from experience. When he was a lawmaker, his daily commute to Jerusalem took him two hours each way, so he decided to act. As chairman of the subcommittee for Judea and Samaria in the Knesset, he was persistent in advancing efforts to improve infrastructure in the West Bank, particularly roads.

“I worked like an operations officer,” says Yogev. We can see the results of his work, such as on the Tunnel Road that serves the residents of Gush Etzion when they travel to Jerusalem. The area is now buzzing with activity. Trucks and excavators are working non-stop to widen the road, making it two lanes in each direction at an estimated cost of a billion shekels. Along with connecting all the outlying parts of Gush Etzion, including Kiryat Arba near Hebron, to Jerusalem, the project is expected to expedite the expansion of the settlement of Efrat by 1,000 dunams (a plan approved by Naftali Bennett when he was defense minister.)

Another solution to the traffic jams at the entrance to Jerusalem is a plan called “The Qalandiyah Underpass,” and it’s already gotten a green light. It will add an elevated level to the road leading to the notorious checkpoint, where the traffic jams make life miserable for those who have to cross it. Thus Israeli citizens, who do not have to undergo a security check, will be separated from the Palestinians, who do.

The contruction site of the Eastern Ring Road.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In addition to the widening of Route 55, Route 5 will also be expanded to two lanes each way between Ariel Junction and Tapuah Junction and Route 367, which connects Gush Etzion and Beit Shemesh – an area where thousands of homes are planned in the settlements of Geva’ot and West Bat Ayin. “How many Palestinians use that road to justify its widening?” asks Yehuda Shaul, who has researched the issue and refers to the minuscule number of Palestinians on Route 367. “The Tunnel Road is not being widened to bring more Palestinians to Jerusalem either.”

One group that has been given consideration is the ultra-Orthodox community, which now constitutes around a third of the West Bank settlers. Many of the roads being planned will connect the West Bank to the Haredi metropolitan areas of Bnei Brak, Jerusalem or Beit Shemesh. Nor have the road plans overlooked the Gush Adumim area, also known as E1, where Israel has been seeking to advance construction for years but has been stymied by international pressure. The international community views construction in that area as cutting off the northern West Bank from the southern part, which would doom the two-state solution. 

But where you might not be able to build, you can pave. Here the emphasis is on the Eastern Ring Road, which is officially part of the Jerusalem road system. A small part of the road is already open and has been dubbed Apartheid Road, because it is essentially two roads separated by a wall – one for Israelis, permitting passage from the Binyamin-area settlements into Jerusalem, and a second road for Palestinians, which circumvents the city from the east and allows passages from the northern West Bank to the southern part. Now work is being done on the southern part of the ring road, which will extend it to Har Homa and allow settlers from the Ma’aleh Adumim area access to the southern part of Jerusalem. A section called the Asher Weiner tunnel will ease traffic to and from the city for the settlers of eastern Gush Etzion.

To complete the picture, Bennett, during his stint as defense minister, announced the advancement of what he called “The Sovereignty Road.” This is a road for Palestinians only that will connect the towns of Al-Za’im and Al-Eizariya and remove Palestinian motorists from the E1 area inside the Ma’aleh Adumim bloc, clearing the area for Jewish settlement.

“There’s diplomatic sovereignty and there’s de facto sovereignty,” Shlomo Ne’eman sums up. “Construction, industrial zones, roads, gas, electricity and water – all these things are de facto sovereignty. This also means that within a few years, we’ll have a million residents here.”