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New expressway to divide Palestinian village

Residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa will appeal next week to Israel's Supreme Court to halt construction of a highway that is to divide the district, community activists said at a press conference Feb. 18. Work on the six-lane artery, an extension of the north-south Begin Expressway, is sparking opposition in Beit Safafa, a quiet, middle-class Arab neighborhood that lies among Jewish areas in southern Jerusalem. Aluminum walls along the construction site are covered in graffiti against the expressway, with slogans such as "Don't run over Beit Safafa." Said Mohannad Gbara, a lawyer for residents: "The road in its current format cannot go ahead. It would be a disaster for Beit Safafa."

Beit Safafa, a village split between Israeli and Jordanian rule until it was reunited in the 1967 war, has become the most integrated of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, with frequent Jewish visitors and shoppers. Last week, the Jerusalem District Court rejected an appeal by residents to halt construction of the expressway. The project has officially been in the works since 1990, but Beit Safafa has grown since then, and an route originally intended to pass along its southern flank now cuts through its center.

The road is meant to ease traffic to and from the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo—but also aims to make access to the city easier for residents of the Etzion Bloc settlements in the West Bank to the south. Kais Nasser, another attorney representing the community, called the road "racist planning meant only to connect the settlements to the north of Jerusalem." He charged that the city has proceeded with work without carrying out a detailed plan for the segment through the neighborhood or allowing public comment, as required by law.

The Jerusalem municipality rejects the residents' claims, saying they were given opportunities to object over the 23 years that the plan made its way through Israel's zoning bureaucracy. The city has spent millions of shekels to improve the neighborhood and minimize damage caused by the project, City Hall said in a statement, calling the highway "of importance to all Jerusalem residents and...great economic value."

But the road is splitting the district into two—in some cases just meters from residents' homes. And residents say they are subject to a campaign of official harassment aimed at silencing their protests. Beit Sefafa business owners say income tax authorities have suddenly stepped up raids. (Haaretz, Feb. 20; Times of Israel, Feb. 18; The Economist, Feb. 16)

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