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Israel furthers “de facto annexation” by pouring billions into settler roads in occupied West Bank

UPDATE: We wrote upon publication of this article on 20 April that “Palestinians will likely only find out about new land seizures and restrictions on their freedom of movement as the projects advance”. It has since come to our attention that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signed a seizure order of Palestinian land surrounding the village of Al-Funduq near Qalqilya on 23 February, in order to being the paving of a new bypass road around the village. The Funduq bypass is included in Israel’s 2023-2024 budget detailed below.

Jerusalem24 – Israeli Transport Minister Miri Regev announced on Tuesday that Israel will pour billions of shekels into road infrastructure for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, according to her proposed 2023-2024 budget and extended five-year plan.

The 3,9 billion shekels ($1,1 billion) allocated to new road construction as well as road expansion in the occupied West Bank constitute one quarter of the Israeli Transport Minister’s overall infrastructure budget – a quota criticized by Labor chair Merav Michaeli, who tweeted that “Less than 5% of the population [settlers] will receive 25% of the budget. Crazy.”

Under the agreement between Regev’s Transport Ministry and the Finance Ministry headed by Bezalel Smotrich (an ardent supporter of Zionist settlement expansion), the budget for public transport and sustainable transport – which Regev had championed as recently as February this year, declaring, “those who want to incentivize public transportation have to put money on it” – will lose 1 billion shekels in favor of the budget for road expansion.

Regev’s emphasis on public transportation reforms had reportedly put her at odds with Smotrich.

Proof of annexation?

According to Regev’s breakdown of the budget, all but 314 million (which will be allocated to improving or paving existing roads) of the total West Bank budget will go towards new road construction and expansion.

It is unclear yet whether some of the projects, such as the 366 million shekels earmarked for expanding the settler access road into the illegal Beit El settlement, the 300 million for a new road connecting the illegal settlement of Migron to Qalandiya, the 80 million for a new highway around occupied East Jerusalem, or the 200 million for a road bypassing the Palestinian village of Al-Funduq near Qalqilya, will entail further seizure of Palestinian land.

The investments in the occupied West Bank, according to Regev’s official statement, “are all aimed at one goal: to unite Israel”.

Itay Ephstain, a Senior Humanitarian Law and Policy Consultant and Special Advisor to the Norwegian Refugee Council, claims the planned infrastructure development is “proof” that Israel has de facto annexed the Palestinian territories.

“According to the [International Committee of the Red Cross] commentary,” writes Ephstain, “what distinguishes a temporary occupation from prohibited annexation, is a situation whereby an Occupying Power – such as Israel – acquires all or part of the occupied territory and incorporates it in its own territory. Later this year when the [International Court of Justice] considers whether Israel’s occupation of Palestine crossed into inquisitive [sic] illegally, this will serve as evidence of aggression against the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the Palestinian people.”

Israeli journalist and Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group Mairav Zonszein commented that the roads slated for construction would specifically serve the Israeli settler population.

No Palestinians allowed

While Palestinians do make use of a number of roads and highways built for Israeli settlers across the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military also maintains a regime of what B’Tselem calls “forbidden roads” that prohibit or restrict Palestinian use in one of three ways – particularly on the roads connecting the Israeli “settlement rings” to occupied East Jerusalem.

The West Bank’s Forbidden Roads

  1. Completely prohibited roads – The first category consists of roads for the exclusive use of Israeli settlers. These are referred to as “sterile roads” by the Israeli military. Israel places a staffed checkpoint through which only Israeli vehicles are allowed to pass. This category also includes roads on which travel is not possible, or pointless, because the access roads leading to and from Palestinian villages are blocked.
  2. Partially prohibited roads – The second category includes roads on which Palestinians are allowed to travel only if they have special permits issued by the Civil Administration, or if the identity cards of the driver and passengers indicate that they are residents of villages entirely dependent on the road on which they are traveling.
  3. Restricted use roads – The third category includes roads on which Palestinian vehicles are allowed to travel without a special permit, but access to the roads is restricted by concrete blocks and other obstacles. In most cases, a driver who wants to get onto the road has to go to an intersection where soldiers check the vehicles and persons wanting to use the road.

Roads that divert Israeli settlers away from Palestinian towns are referred to as “bypass” roads (such as Regev’s planned bypass road circumventing the village of Al-Funduq).

Source: B’Tselem, Forbidden Roads: The Discriminatory West Bank Road Regime

It is unclear as of yet what category any of the planned roads might fall under, and Palestinians will likely only find out about new land seizures and restrictions on their freedom of movement as the projects advance.

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