An illegal road connecting two settlements in the central West Bank area was paved on Palestinian land for at least two weeks by unidentified sources.
Construction on the road, which has since been halted following protests by Palestinians, began in May with neither a permit nor prior notice to residents living in the area. The road was meant to shorten the distance between the settlements of Ofra and Beit El by bypassing Route 60, a major artery.
The areas overlapped by the road – which extends over three kilometers (almost two miles) and is five to seven meters wide – belong to the city of El Bireh and the villages of Ein Yabrud and Beitin, north of Ramallah. The road was 400 meters short of completion when its construction was stopped following the protests.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) confirmed, in a response to a Haaretz query, that the construction of the road was illegal and that no permit had been previously issued for it.
According to El Bireh city councilman Munif Tarish and the mayor of Ein Yabrud, Najah Dahabra, Israel's Civil Administration told the Palestinian liaison office that Beit El's town council was responsible for the pavement of the road.
A spokesperson for COGAT neither confirmed nor denied this, and the Beit El town council and the Binyamin Regional Council both refused to respond to Haaretz’s questions.
The heavy mechanical equipment, laborers and required planning needed for the road-construction project suggest it was supported by multiple sources.
The work took place over the course of two weeks without any interference, even though the beginning of the route is directly opposite the entrance to the Netzah Yehuda Battalion’s base and is also visible from a Border Police base.
Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank also holds a base just a few hundred meters from the road, where both the Supreme Planning Council and the building inspection department are located.
Municipal officials in El Bireh said that, given all this, they have trouble believing the Civil Administration officials who told them they knew nothing about the illegal construction.
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Dror Etkes, who researches Israeli expropriation of land in the West Bank, says that part of the route belongs to the extension of an existing Palestinian agricultural road, "but it is clear constructors weren't afraid of encroaching on 40 privately owned plots of land. This indicates a firm sense of immunity [from punishment and repercussions]," he said.
The illegal construction of roads across the West Bank isn't exceptional and is part of a pattern. Etkes, who founded and heads the NGO Kerem Navot, estimates that hundreds of illegal roads have been constructed in similar fashion over the past 30 years, totaling hundreds of kilometers.
These roads, which often shorten the distances between settlements, have eventually been legalized by Israeli authorities. They also, in a de facto manner, increase the space where Palestinian presence is disappearing, barring Palestinians from driving, hiking, working the land or herding their sheep due to armed settlers or soldiers preventing free passage.
Residents of Ein Yabrud and Beitin say they woke up one night in mid-May to the sound of bulldozers digging the ground on their land near Route 60, across the entrance to Ofra. Over the following days, they discovered that most of the new road had already been built – on El Bireh’s lands, in a relatively concealed area where few Palestinians go because of its proximity to the army bases and settlements.
The El Bireh municipality and the villages’ local councils reported what was happening to the Palestinian liaison office, which knew nothing about it. That office then contacted the Civil Administration.
A few days later, residents of the two villages gathered around the bulldozers, which were working on the road in broad daylight, and prevented their drivers – one Arab and one Jewish – from continuing to work.
When a group of soldiers arrived at the site, Dahabra said, the demonstrators informed the officer that the work was being done illegally on their lands and that they would not agree to leave as long as the laborers remained. Since then, the work has stopped.
“Once this [illegal construction] was known,” a COGAT spokesperson said, “the Civil Administration’s enforcers took action to stop work at the site.”
Last week, a Civil Administration stop-work order was indeed seen at the site, but its date – June 14 – shows that it was issued only the day after Haaretz submitted its questions to COGAT.
Despite the order, there is still a pile of lampposts on the site that is clearly visible from the gate of the army base. As of last Friday, these had not been removed, nor had the holes dug to hold them been filled in.
During a meeting at the El Bireh municipality last week, some of the affected landowners reminisced that their parents and grandparents had cultivated the land and brought water from the ein al Qas'ah spring nearby.
Today, they are prevented from reaching the spring, which is being used as a mikveh – a ritual purification bath – by religious Jews. Many owners of the affected land are U.S. citizens and say they intend to inform the American public about the violation of their property rights.