ROUTE 443, West Bank, May 28 (Douglas Hamilton - Reuters) - Israel on Friday began allowing Palestinians onto a major highway in the occupied West Bank for the first time in eight years, but barred them from using it to gain easy access to their main city, Ramallah.
Just a few kilometers (miles) east of the new checkpoint where Palestinians are now allowed on to Route 443, big yellow road signs warn them to get off again, at the last exit for Palestinian vehicles to the West Bank's commercial capital.
Around the bend, Israeli troops at a new three-lane checkpoint ensure that only Israeli citizens and permit holders may continue onwards to Jerusalem.
Cut off before they can reach the fast route to Ramallah, the Palestinians must go back onto narrow country roads.
Palestinian access to 443, one of two main routes linking Israel's coastal plain with the uplands of Jerusalem, was blocked in 2002 after several fatal shooting attacks on Israeli cars during the Palestinian intifada (uprising).
The level of violence has subsided significantly and last December Israel's Supreme Court ruled in favour of a Palestinian petition that highway segregation was illegal. It gave the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) six months to end it.
This morning the IDF opened Route 443 to the movement of Palestinians, said army spokesman Peter Lerner at a new roadblock and ramp where troops oversee access to Route 443.
The movement from here to Ramallah is via rural routes, he said. The average check of a vehicle is about four minutes. It's not such a stringent check but it's sufficient to make sure that there are no arms and no security threats.
Activists say the costly new arrangement is a disappointment to Palestinians and an irritant to those Israelis who say they will not feel safe sharing this short section of the highway.
SHORT AND POINTLESS
Hailed at first as a victory for justice, the Supreme Court ruling now looks like a human rights travesty, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said this week.
The 25 km (15 mile) four-lane highway begins near Ben Gurion Airport, a short distance inland from Tel Aviv. About 14 km of it runs through the occupied West Bank up to Jerusalem. About 40,000 Israeli drivers travel it daily.
Palestinian villagers living near the route said the eight-year ban on using it had tripled their travelling time to Ramallah, where there are jobs, hospitals, banks and government offices. They had to take narrow roads over the hills.
But they feel today's arrangement will be no better: they foresee they will end up using a mere 4 km (2.5 miles) of the road between Israel's main westbound and eastbound checkpoints, and not even that if it proves faster to use existing tunnels under 443 rather than queue up to be security-checked.
The route will still be a major highway for Israelis but no more than an internal service road for the Palestinians, said ACRI chief legal counsel Dan Yakir earlier this week.
Farouk Antawi, a Palestinian driving from his village of Beit Sira, told Israeli radio the checks take a long time and I prefer to use the road that goes through the villages.
He noted that Israeli and Palestinian vehicles share all the other main roads in the West Bank, where Israeli settlers travel to and from their homes and farms, and there is no difference between them.