Israel's E1 Project Could Disrupt Travel For Palestinians In West Bank

Plans by the Israeli government to build in E1 have been decried by Palestinian officials who claim that building a new settlement between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim would, "effectively cut the West Bank in two." Israeli officials have accused the Palestinians of exaggerating E1's importance, and pro-Israel groups have argued that alternative roads will still run through the area, connecting the northern and southern halves of the West Bank. A trip between Bethlehem and Ramallah that 10 years ago would take 15-20 minutes, will take upwards of 2.5 hours on the new roads.

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As we just heard, Palestinians have condemned the E1 settlement project, saying it would effectively cut the West Bank in two. Israeli officials dismiss that criticism, and they say that there are alternative routes for Palestinians who want to travel between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank.

Well, Sheera Frenkel explored those alternatives.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: The morning rush hour traffic has just begun to ease when Majed Adnan pulls his flatbed truck into his nursery in the village of Abu Dis. The 48-year-old travels through Jerusalem and much of the West Bank, delivering plants and tending to gardens. So he says he pays a lot of attention to changes in the road system, especially when a major new settlement like E1 is announced.

MAJED ADNAN: Sure, if they build E1, they're going to close a lot of roads. That's the problem.

FRENKEL: Adnan says he's gotten used to long road trips. Abu Dis sits astride the main thoroughfare Palestinians travel between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank.

ADNAN: In '85, '86, I start to open my store, and I was going to Bethlehem from Ramallah to buy something from my store. If there is too much traffic, it took for me 10 minutes.

FRENKEL: How long does it take now?

ADNAN: Ramallah from Bethlehem, maybe one and a half hour.

FRENKEL: The West Bank is shaped somewhat like a kidney, with Jerusalem in the middle. Israeli settlements have carved out large swaths of the West Bank. But the E1 project would have a particularly large impact, say Palestinian officials, because once it's completed, only Israelis will be allowed to drive on the main north-south road.

Israeli government officials say there are two options for Palestinian travel once E1 is built. The first would be for Israel to build a bypass road that would cut close to Ma'ale Adumim, one of the main West Bank settlements east of Jerusalem. The second would be for Palestinians to use existing roads along a circuitous route that would add 40 miles to a trip from Bethlehem to Ramallah, a distance of 13 miles as the crow flies.

Near Ma'ale Adumim, I came across a construction site for what could be a bypass road. Along the middle of the road, a wall has been built, the idea being that to one side of the road, persons with Israeli nationality would be able to drive there, and on the other side to the road, Palestinians would be able to drive. At the moment, only a small fraction of this road has been built, but it has been proposed that this road could be an alternative in the future.

Mohammed Ali, a 31-year-old from Ramallah, points out that the prospective bypass is extremely narrow, in most parts, just one lane and could hardly handle the tens of thousands of Palestinians who currently travel from north to south in the West Bank.

MOHAMMED ALI: This is where the problem lays. It is some kind of a hideous, hateful detour road.

FRENKEL: Still, he adds, it's better than driving on the other north-south route.

I've been driving 45 minutes now since leaving the outskirts of Bethlehem, and I'm just reaching Jericho now. It's been an incredibly windy road and one that's descended 3,500 feet. Palestinians who use this new route to go from the southern to the northern parts of the West Bank would have to then ascend another 3,500 feet before reaching the city of Ramallah.

All in all, Palestinians say it could take two to three hours to travel between cities that are less than 15 miles apart. But that's just an estimate, they say, one they hope they will never have to test out.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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