Israeli highway hits Palestinian village “like a tsunami”

Residents of Beit Safafa protest the four-lane highway which that will cut through their town in Jerusalem, 16 January. The road is being constructed on privately-owned land designated for building houses in the densely-populated town and will connect the various Jewish settlement colonies in the Hebron area to Jerusalem.

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Residents in Beit Safafa, south of Jerusalem, are resisting a planned highway that will cause irreparable harm to their village.

Highway 50, as the project is known, is planned to connect the Gush Etzion bloc of Israeli settlements with settlements in the northern part Jerusalem. The project is part of Israel’s wider plan for asserting its control over the greater Jerusalem area, as it continues to annex and confiscate lands south of the city in violation of international law.

Beit Safafa and the nearby village Sharafat were divided in the 1970s by the construction of Gilo road, built to connect the newly-built settlement Gilo to the city. Beit Safafa and Sharafat, historically inseparable, will now be divided into four parts with the construction of Highway 50.

This plan has triggered mass protests in a village which has not witnessed large-scale resistance since the first intifada. The road is being built by the Moriah-Jerusalem Development Corporation.

Environmental and health hazards

The family of Alaa Salman, a 39-year-old goldsmith, are among those affected by the construction of Highway 50. Besides losing land to this project, Highway 50 passes right in front of Salman’s house, resulting in environmental and health hazards to the neighborhood. He is now a local leader in the protests against the construction of the road.

“In 1985, the [Jerusalem] municipality started confiscating the land,” he said. “We did not understand what was happening at the time.

“In the early 1990s, when they approved Road 4 project [as Highway 50 was originally known], the municipality started uprooting the olive trees. The residents erected a tent on the confiscated land.”

Salman recalled that the project was frozen following pressure from Yossi Sarid, then a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Sarid was also the environment minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s government at the time. The environmental objections were made to protect the wildlife — particularly deer — in the adjacent valley.

Procedures “reversed”

Construction of the road began on 28 September last year. Under regular procedures, the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality would publish an official map of the project and seek residents’ approval before they started the construction. But that was not the case this time.

“The municipality was afraid that the majority of the residents of Beit Safafa would object,” said Salman. “They reversed the procedure. They started the construction first. They expected us to be silent, but they were surprised.”

Fifteen families approached the lawyer Qais Nasser as soon as the construction work began. The families and 150 residents filed an objection to the project in the Jerusalem district court.

More than 234 dunums of privately-owned Palestinian land were confiscated for Highway 50 (a dunum is roughly equivalent to 1,000 square meters). More than 100 families will be affected by the construction of this road.

Expanding to 100 meters in width and 1.8 km in length, Highway 50 effectively puts the residents and the houses on both sides of the road at risk. The houses along the road will not enjoy the mandatory distance from a highway that the municipality has set for safety reasons. Those houses may also be demolished under orders from the Israeli authorities at some stage.

The Administrative Council of Beit Safafa has joined the families’ efforts and hired lawyer Muhannad Jbarah to join Nasser in mounting a legal challenge.

“Refused to listen”

Mohammed Aliyan, the council’s chairman (also known as Abu Dahoud), said that Highway 50 is will chop up the village into separate cantons.

“Four years ago, the municipality started sending letters to the council about the project,” he said. “I was not in the council back then. I was appointed only two years ago.

“We refused the road. When I became the chairman, we tried to talk the municipality out of the project. They refused to listen to us.”

The council proposed an alternative plan. “We approached a roads engineer to work on an alternative plan for the road,” said Aliyan. “The alternative plan suggested a tunnel in the al-Safih area in Beit Safafa that will minimize the harm. But the municipality rejected our plan.”

The municipality refused to consider the council’s objections. In September, the municipality sent a letter to the council, informing it that work on the road would start immediately.

“We started negotiating with the municipality at first,” said Alaa Salman. “But then we discovered that they were not taking us seriously.”

Protests and arrests

On 15 November, the families went to the Jerusalem district court, demanding the halt of the construction. Then on 22 January — the same day as Israel’s general election — the residents organized their first demonstration, when hundreds of Beit Safafa residents walked along the route of Highway 50. This protest was followed by several others in front of the Jerusalem municipality’s headquarters and the Knesset. A protest tent has been erected on the confiscated land.

During the protests, at least seven persons, including minors, were arrested on different occasions. They were all released the following day with conditions that ban them from participating in further protests.

On 10 February, the district court dismissed the case. “Highway 50 is a political decision,” said Salman. “It is over the heads of the district court.”

Aliyan said that Nir Barakat, the mayor of Jerusalem, recently called him for an urgent meeting during which Barakat pleaded that the issue of Highway 50 not be politicized. “Barakat claims that he is obliged to execute this project that was planned before he took office,” Aliyan said. “I told him it is out of my hands. The residents consider the project a tsunami that hit the village.”

Barakat has also met some families from Beit Safafa. This meeting was scheduled to last for an hour and 15 minutes but continued for three hours. “It was clear the mayor was afraid of the popular movement in Beit Safafa,” said Aliyan. “He tried to pay us off with many incentives, including approving a new school that we have been demanding for years.

Serving the settlements

“Part of the construction in Highway 50 will include a wall similar to the apartheid wall in the West Bank. We cannot accept an apartheid wall in the heart of Beit Safafa. We are steadfast in our position. We will not stop the popular movement. We will seek all ways to stop the project.”

Although their lands are being confiscated for Highway 50’s construction, this road will not serve the 12,000 Palestinians living in Beit Safafa. The road follows a series of settlement projects undertaken on the land of Beit Safafa over many decades.

Last year, 3,800 settlement units were approved by the Jerusalem Municipality in Givat Hamatos, a settlement east of Beit Safafa. Road 10 is another project planned to connect settlers to the main roads; it also involves the confiscation of privately-owned Palestinian lands in Beit Safafa.

After Israel’s establishment in 1948, most of the land north of Beit Safafa was confiscated to expand the industrial zone of Talpiot. In 1967, the southern and eastern part of Beit Safafa were occupied by Israel. Less than five years later, the settlement of Gilo was built.

In 1948, the surface area of Beit Safafa covered more than 4,800 dunums. Today, only 1,800 dunums remain. But Israel’s incremental colonization of Palestinian land is not going without a challenge.

“They tell me that it is not my business since I personally did not lose land for the project,” said Aliyan. “What happens in Silwan [in East Jerusalem], Ramallah, Hebron, Gaza and Akka is our business. And the issue of Highway 50 is a concern for all of us.”

Maath Musleh is a Palestinian journalist and blogger based in Jerusalem and a visiting lecturer at Al Quds Bard Honors College.