On the surface (slight pun intended), the plan for Highway 6 makes sense. The Trans-Israel Highway, as it is popularly known, has two “official” purposes and one strong argument used by its supporters:
- As the new spine to the country, the main north-south artery replacing the coastal highways, Highway 6 will address the growing road traffic needs of Israel, projected to more than double in the next twenty years. In particular it will relieve congestion on north-south roads (especially 2,4 and 40 in the middle of the country), and will shorten travel times throughout the country;
- It will “promote construction along the eastern strip of the central district” and Haifa, relieving over-crowding along the coastal plain. This is in line with the Master Plan for the Central District (Master Plan 3), which foresees a decrease in the growth of the metropolitan core and an increase along the eastern borders; and
- It will provide much needed employment for the Israeli work force.
Overall the Trans-Israel Highway will extend 350 kilometers (220 miles), from Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanese border in the north to south of the Negev city of Be’er Sheva in the south, with a long 60 km/38 mile spur stretch across the Galilee to a point north of the Sea of Galilee. The scale of the highway is American: in its central portion, the 86 km/53 mile strip passing through the most congested part of the country, the highway will be four lanes in each directions. This section will be a toll-road costing some $6 to travel on. In the less congested areas of the north and south, the highway will narrow to 2-4 lanes in each direction and will be toll-free. There are no plans for public transportation to accompany the highway, either rail or special bus routes.
Nor can it be said that spatial considerations involving an American-scale highway slicing through the middle of a country the size of New Jersey is evidenced in the plans. The central section alone will turn 55,000 dunums of land (almost 14,000 acres) into asphalt, and it is intended to encourage strip development so as to “relieve congestion along the coastal plain.” According to the plan (as presented in the Foreign Ministry’s web page), an entirely new city of 100,000 residents, to be called Iron, will be established in the central Galilee, near the Ein Hashofet kibbutz, along the highway’s route. The small “residential community” of Katzir (notorious for having to be forced by the Supreme Court to accept an Arab family) and the “outpost” Hadish, at the southern entrance to Wadi Ara (the heavily Arab area known as the “Triangle,” bordering on the West Bank) will expand to accommodate some 15,000 residents. Kokhav Ya’ir (Barak’s residence), Tzur Yigal and Kfar Yona, three small towns bordering the West Bank, will grow by 50,000 people. The city of Rosh Ha’ayin will expand by another 30-60,000 people; Mazur (Elad) will eventually house some 27,000 people; and Shoham will absorb another 26,000 residents. The new city of Modi’in, located on and straddling the Green Line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, will reach a population of 250,000. Kiryat Gat, at the southern end of the central portion, will grow by another 25-30,000. Needless to say, suburban sprawl, accompanied by the ubiquitous and expansive shopping and entertainment centers sprouting up throughout the country, will follow upon this planned development. In order to serve these new and expanded population centers, together with metropolitan Tel Aviv, the Trans-Israel Highway will include 34 intersections, each extending over an area larger than Jerusalem’s Old City. The central portion alone will have fourteen major intersections, at an average distance of only 6 kms/3.7 miles from one another.
A “Peace Scenario” was also included in the highway’s plan, according to which Israel, the West Bank and Gaza will be “integrated” economically, in employment and in transportation, although the details of such an “integration” remain vague. The “Peace Scenario” does note, however, the highway’s usefulness as a “bypass road” for travel from one part of the West Bank to another.
The cost of the first stage of the highway, from Hadera to Ashdod, is estimated at $1.2 billion. This is to be borne by private investors (mainly the Toronto-based Canadian Highways and Israel’s Bank HaPoalim), with generous government loans, guarantees against loss and supplementary infrastructural work. Construction began in October, 1999, although most of the highway’s sections have not yet received
final government approval. Both Labor and Likud governments have enthusiastically supported the project, which was initially approved during Rabin’s term in office.
Opposition to the Highway
Israelis in general are enamored of their cars, and any prospect of reducing traffic jams is uncritically welcomed. Moreover, Israelis favor the “development” of their country: expanding roads, building new cities, developing the “undeveloped” (and especially Arab-dominated) parts of the country – all this sounds fine to them. There is a growing awareness of environmental issues, but it is still in an early stage. Israeli “Greens” are careful not to get “political.” So it has been only in the past year or so that opposition to the Trans-Israel Highway has grown to significant proportions – though perhaps too late to stop the project. Some 30 environmental and social issue groups have joined in a loose coalition to oppose the highway. They have mounted a vigorous campaign, including a boycott of the project’s financiers, and have signed 58 Knesset members (out of 120) on an anti-highway petition, including seven ministers.
Opposition to the highway is couched in the usual arguments arrayed against similar projects in Europe or North America. Rather than base its transportation system on cars that are energy-inefficient, wasteful of space, polluting and expensive (both to their owners and to the country that must maintain an infrastructure for them), national planning in recent years has emphasized just the opposite: urban renewal, preserving Israel’s open spaces (especially in the center of the country), preference of dense urban building over low-rise suburban sprawl, and increased use of public transportation, including inter-urban trains. Highway 6 will encourage the use of private vehicles, prevent the installation of an extensive system of public transportation and sap the vitality of existing cities.
Figures are presented that counter arguments of the highway’s indispensability, effectiveness, financial viability and size. The $1.2 billion price tag, it is argued, will mostly likely reach $5 billion, making the entire project unsustainable for private firms. Much of the investors’ profits are expected to come from tolls. Congestion has not reached the point, however, where drivers will prefer to pay a toll to save a few minutes of time over a relatively short distance. Since the government has guaranteed the investors’ investment, the private concerns involved cannot lose, while the Israeli taxpayer will be left to fund a “white elephant.” And maintenance of highway systems is far more expensive than systems of public transport.
The arguments continue. Public transportation is far less polluting (cars pollute 100 times more than trains per passenger mile) and far safer (Israel’s current death toll of 550 per year will rise to 665 by 2010 without the highway being built but to 1139 with the highway, due to the additional vehicles, extra kilometrage, increased speed and the “spillover” effect of continuing to drive a high speeds even after exiting the Highway. A system based on public transportation would reduce deaths to 300 in the same time period). Moreover, the associated “hidden” costs of the Trans-Israel Highway would be prohibitive. Death tolls would cost an estimated $146-438 million per year. The costs of gas, oil, cars, tires and other transportation expenses represent a drain on the economy since Israel must import these commodities. Vast tracts of land would be lost to agriculture, while agricultural productivity would decline substantially due to transport-generated photochemical pollutants. Because the highway passes over Israel’s main aquifer, the country’s precious ground water would be jeopardized by runoff from the metal pollutants emanating from moving cars and trucks. Nor would the highway generate jobs, as its proponents promise. Foreign laborers, working at a minimal wage or less, have long ago replaced Israelis and even Palestinians on such projects.
Quality of life issues enter the picture as well. Besides its negative impact on the country’s increasingly endangered open spaces – a holy, historic and fragile landscape dear to world heritage — the Trans-Israel Highway also threatens wildlife habitats and the country’s very coherency. If completed there will not be more than a few miles from the north of the country to the south not intersected by highways and roads.
Finally, there is the issue of Highway 6’s social impact. If the road succeeds in moving significant parts of the population eastward, a concern is raised that the new suburbs, accessible only by car, will only increase the disparity between rich and poor, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazis and Mizrahim – that the Trans-Israel Highway will become a “rich man’s highway.” Highways opponents present a scenario whereby commuters from privileged populations pay tolls to reach exclusive suburbs in an attempt to “escape” the degraded surrounded of all the others – degraded in part by their own highway and the selective development it has engendered. The highway will also further another two of the government’s long-standing and explicit policies: “Judaizing” the Galilee, that is, ensuring a Jewish majority there, and preventing territorial contiguity between Arab cities, towns and villages. That is what Iron, Katzir and the other Jewish “outposts” and “development towns” (and now suburbs) are intended to do. That is part of what the Trans-Israel Highway Company means when it states that one purpose of Highway 6 is to “fortify” the “eastern boundary of the central district.” “According to government ministry plans,” says the Foreign Ministry website, “the population [meaning Jewish, since the Arab population is already there] will increase considerably and development centers will be established on the land belts adjacent to Highway 6, once it is established. The areas on the vicinity of Highway 6 are slated for new settlements and the existing settlements adjacent to the highway are expected to increase.” Iron, Katzir and Hadish, Kokhav Ya’ir, Tzur Yigal and other settlements will introduce major Jewish populations into the “Triangle,” thus “neutralizing” Umm e-Fahem, Kafar Kara, Baka el-Gharbiyeh and other Arab locales. The spur cutting through the Upper Galilee from west to east will have a similar effect. The Trans-Israel Highway will require massive expropriations from Palestinian Arab communities in Israel, while limiting their natural expansion through highway and Jewish settlement construction that primarily serves the Jewish population. And while the highway’s proponents claim that it will be good for women (“The keys to the car are the keys to equality”), many women expressed grave misgivings. They point out that women normally have less access to cars than men and that urban sprawl, unaccompanied by good urban and inter-urban public transportation, locks many women in isolated islands around their homes.
The opposition to the Trans-Israel Highway is broad-based and increasing vociferous. Recently several key planners, including people who played a role in conceiving the project and seeing it through its early stages, expressed regret and went on record – cautiously, as is the wont of planners dependent upon the government for contracts – as saying that today they would not have approved of Highway 6.
The Other Side of the Road
Roads are an ideal mechanism for asserting control over disputed territory. They are massive, permanent structures; they flow, giving the feeling of “natural” connections with no artificial borders, yet they claim land by their very routes; they are banal and can be made to look inoffensive and even benign and attractive – or, by contrast, they can be made to look imposing and intimidating; and they can be opened or closed, or can be used to channel populations into different directions, uniting or separating them. What is astounding about the debate surrounding the Trans-Israel Highway is the blindness of its opponents – trying to separate “politics” from “the environment” — to its significance as a means for fully incorporating the West Bank into the body of Israel proper. All maps and discussions concentrate solely on the highway’s impact within Israel, while maps and discussions over the impact of Israel’s massive system of by-pass in the Occupied Territories ignore the presence of the Trans-Israel Highway (the Dutch cartographer/planner Jan de Jong being an exception). Joining the two sides of the road, however, enables us to see the entire “rib cage” — and to begin to appreciate the wider political significance of this project.
Within the context of internal Israeli planning, one of the main purposes of Highway 6, to encourage massive urban development along the “eastern boundary of the central district” in order to relieve congestion along the coast, sounds reasonable. The pros and cons of such an undertaking can indeed be argued on the basis of rational planning and environmental considerations. But if we take a wider view, looking at the Trans-Israel Highway in its entirety and evaluating its impact both east and west, an entirely different picture and set of issues emerges. The highway virtually hugs the border of the West Bank, coming within a kilometer or two of Kalkiyah, so that “the eastern border of the central district” actually means the Israel/West Bank interface. Now let’s place the highway in its larger context. The Trans-Israel Highway becomes, as its planners suggest, “the new central spine of the country,” replacing the “old” (yet still major) coastal spine of Highways 2 and 4. To the east, Highway 60 is a major road running from Be’er Sheva (with a spur to Arad) all the way to Afula and beyond, neatly dividing the West Bank in two. Route 90, passing through the Jordan Valley from Metualla to Eilat, constitutes the easternmost north-south axis. Now lay across the entire map the major axes that transverse Israel and the West Bank west to east: the Trans-Samaria Highway (Road 5) stretching from the coast (near Ramat Hasharon through Ariel to the Jordan Valley; Road 45 from Modi’in through northern Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim; Road 1 from Tel Aviv through central Jerusalem, Ma’aleh Adumim and on to the Jordan River; and Road 7 (the “Ashdod-Amman Highway”), passing through Beitar Illit and the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim and on to the Jordan River and Amman. What emerges is a grid that fully incorporates the West Bank into Israel proper. When we add the other 29 or so by-pass roads criss-crossing the West Bank between Israeli settlement blocs, plus the Jerusalem Ring Road that “unites” both sides of the city, we perceive a matrix of control that forecloses any possibility of a viable Palestinian state controlling its own destiny.
It is this wider perspective that an even greater significance of the Trans-Israel Highway is exposed. The idea of using a road network to de facto annex the West Bank is not new. In 1976 the Trans-Samaria Highway was built, linking the Tel Aviv area with Ariel and the Allon Highway, which already served Israelis seeking a “shortcut” from Jerusalem to the Galilee, or in the other direction to Ein Gedi and the south. In 1984 the Shamir government unveiled Road Plan 50, a national highway system encompassing the entire West Bank, designed to allow a more rapid development of settlements. The by-pass road scheme was originally submitted by the Shamir government under the rubric “the Great Roads Plan.” It called for the construction of 400 kms/250 miles of highways circumventing major Palestinian centers. Although Rabin officially cancelled most of the road plans immediately after Oslo, the plan was revived in late 1994 when, in fact, the government announced the building of the 400 kms. The agreements surrounding the Oslo II Accord of September, 1995, gave legitimacy to this project, which continues until this day.
The political concept of a Trans-Israel Highway, therefore, goes far beyond easing traffic in the Tel Aviv area or opening new areas for urban development. The highway has a much wider function. By bringing together Israeli Jewish cities, towns and settlements into one grid and moving entire population center of the country eastward, it virtually erases the Green Line. The country as a whole is reconfigured. The metropolitan areas of Tel Aviv, Modi’in, Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim merge with the large blocs of settlements to the south of Jerusalem (Efrat, the Etzion Bloc, Beitar Illit and, on the Israeli side, Beit Shemesh), as well as with those to the northwest (Rosh Ha’ayin, Ariel, Kiryat Sefer and Givat-Ze’ev), transforming all of central Israel and the central West Bank into a huge and indivisible megalopolis – one, moreover, that includes some 70% of the settler population. The Master Plan for “Metropolitan Jerusalem” adopted by the government in 1995 even incorporates Ramallah and the Bethlehem area, having created a regional entity of such economic force that it virtually nullifies any political boundaries that might attempt to salvage some Palestinian viability or control. Indeed, as de Jong points out, we can look at the 4000 sq kms running from Ashdod to Netanya, eastward to Nablus, down to Bethlehem and the Efrat and across again to Ashdod as the country’s new “metropolitan core-region.” Highway 6 is its north-south spine; Highway 1 its east-west one. Road 5 constitutes a major corridor of contiguous Israeli settlement stretching from Metropolitan Tel Aviv through Ariel to another core area: the Jordan Valley, Dead Sea shoreline and eastern Hebron Hills.
Besides the major axes mentioned above (east-west roads 5, 1, 45, and 7; north-south roads 90, 60 and the Trans-Israel Highway), the West Bank is tightly tied into Israel proper through a series of other roads, all of which pass through major east-west intersections of the Trans-Israel Highway. Road 586 runs eastward from Hadera; Road 57 eastwards from Netanya; Road 55 eastward from Herzliya; Road 465 eastward from Tel Aviv; and Road 35 eastward from Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat to Hebron – all of them intersecting with Highway 60. Road 325 winds from Highway 6 (near Rahat) through the southwest corner of the West Bank. Road 80 extends up f
rom Arad to Jerusalem, passing through the area where the army recently tried to remove the Palestinian “cave-dwellers.” Many internal roads connecting settlements fill in this dense grid.
Highway 6, because of its scale and its total disregard for public transportation, will wreak environmental and social havoc on Israel’s historic, fragile but intensively used landscape – while at the same time generating billions in profits for contractors, the auto and oil industries, real estate developers, commercial interests and, ultimately, the government itself. Despite the “Peace Scenario,” it is conceived as a political instrument for controlling an “enemy” population (Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line), as well as foreclosing any viable Palestinian state. Highways, however, can also be used as instruments of development and integration. A by-pass road that functions as a barrier to expansion and development of a Palestinian town can, if linked to that town by an access road, serve to integrate it into the wider region. But then it can no longer be a “by-pass” or “security” road. After many more years of land expropriation, of attempting to impose a “peace” through force of settlement and physical domination, the Trans-Israel Highway – if it is built — may yet become the backbone of one bi-national or democratic state, instead of the last nail in the coffin of a true and lasting peace. Highway 6 is only the latest attempt by Israel to “create facts on the ground” that totally prejudice the political “peace process.” Together with internal Israeli issues, opposition to the project must also focus on its broad and fundamental political implications.
Jeff Halper is the co-founder and director of ICAHD. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reprinted from News From Within (May 2000)