Settlements in Focus: Vol. 1, Issue 7 - "Bypass Roads of the West Bank"

Beginning in the 1970s with the birth and emboldening of the settlement movement, Israel has gradually created a new transportation grid in the West Bank.


What is a bypass road?

Beginning in the 1970s with the birth and emboldening of the settlement movement, Israel has gradually created a new transportation grid in the West Bank. The purpose of much of the new road system is to "bypass" Palestinian towns and villages, connecting Israeli settlements to each other and to the Israeli transportation grid inside the Green Line. Many of these roads are thus referred to as "bypass roads."

The Israeli Human Rights group "B'tselem" has published two reports that include extensive discussion of the issue of roads and road use in the West Bank, including bypass roads. Links to the full reports are included at the end of this document.

What is the impact of the bypass roads?

Bypass roads cater to the interests of Israeli settlers who, even before the outbreak of the Intifada, wanted to be able to commute to Israel and through the West Bank easily and safely. Bypass roads have also been seen as a way of making settlements more attractive to prospective residents.

"The idea of a bypass roads system, which enables access to settlements and travel between settlements without having to pass through Palestinian villages, was first raised during the settlement push in the late 1970s. In the 'Settlement Master Plan for 1983-1986,' the chapter discussing roads states that, 'The road is the factor that motivates settlement in areas where settlement is important, and its [road] advancement will lead to development and demand.' According to the plan, one of the primary objectives determining the routes of the roads was to 'bypass the Arab population centers.' It was according to this conception that Israel built dozens of new roads in the West Bank during the 1980s." (B'tselem, Forbidden Roads, p. 7)

In addition to their role in connecting settlements, bypass roads often block the development of the Palestinian communities in the West Bank, creating borders and barriers between communities and routes that in the past were connected. They also form clear axes of Israeli control throughout the West Bank.

"The Settlement master plan for 1983-1986.expressly states that one of the primary considerations in choosing the site to establish settlements is to limit construction in Palestinian villages. For example, in its discussion of the mountain ridge area, the plan states that it 'holds most of the Arab population in the urban and rural communities. Jewish settlement along this route (Route 60) will create a psychological wedge regarding the mountain ridge, and also will likely reduce the uncontrolled spread of Arab settlement.' This demonstrates that the desire to demarcate Palestinian construction was a guiding principle in determining the routes of the new roads. " (B'tselem, Forbidden Roads, pp. 7-8)

What is the history of the bypass roads?

Israeli first began building roads in the West Bank around the same time as the first settlements were established:

"In many instances, the location of the settlements required new routes over difficult topographic terrain. Frequently, these roads served a small number of settlers, no more than a few dozen. The Israeli policy led, among other things, to extensive damage to the landscape of the West Bank. The construction far exceeded the changes needed to meet the transportation needs resulting from the increase in population and economy of the area." (B'tselem, Forbidden Roads, p. 6)

Road construction in the West Bank accelerated in tandem with progress in the peace process:

"Beginning in 1993, with the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (Oslo I), and in the framework of the redeployment of IDF forces in the West Bank, the bypass road system gained momentum. In 1995, new road construction reached a peak. Israel began the construction of more than one hundred kilometers of roads in the West Bank, which constituted more than twenty percent of all the road starts that Israel made that year. In following years, Israel continued to build bypass roads, though at a slower rate. In July 2004, four bypass roads were under construction." (B'tselem, Forbidden Roads, p. 7)

"One of the main components of this plan was the construction of an extensive system of bypass roads intended to meet four key needs defined by the Ministry of Defense: to permit Israelis to travel without passing through Palestinian population centers; to permit Israelis to travel across the Green Line by the shortest route; to maintain 'an internal fabric of life' within the Israeli settlement blocs; and to ensure that Palestinian traffic did not pass through the settlements." (B'tselem, Land Grab, pp. 33-34)

Following the outbreak of violence in September 2000, construction of bypass roads again accelerated:

"After the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, toward the end of 2000, a new wave of land requisition through military orders began. Private lands were seized in order to construct new bypass roads to replace old roads or bypass roads that were no longer safe. The new roads were intended to meet the needs of the settlers who, since the beginning of the new intifada, had suffered repeated attacks from Palestinians while traveling on the roads. According to one press report, eight new bypass roads are currently [as of May 2002] in various phases of construction, at a total cost of NIS 228 million." (B'tselem, Land Grab, p. 34)

Are they still being built?

Israel continues to build bypass roads throughout the West Bank. According to Peace Now's research (including aerial and ground surveys), current projects include construction of a new Jerusalem-Nokdim bypass road (bypassing Bethlehem from the southeast); and construction to upgrade Highway #5 (the Trans Samaria Highway) and Highway #1 (the Maa'le Adumim-Jericho Road). In addition, the Nili-Ofarim bypass (west of Ramallah) was recently completed and opened to traffic.

Who plans/builds/pays for them?

Most of the bypass roads are planned, built, and paid for by the government of Israel, with funds provided mainly by the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Transportation. According to a September 2003 article in Ha'aretz, the cost of these roads (up to that date) was around NIS 10 billion (about $2.2 billion). In some cases, the settlers have planned and illegally built roads by diverting public funds allocated for other purposes.

"According to the State Comptroller, in most cases in which the competent IDF officials realized that the roadwork was being done without approval, the army rushed to obtain requisition orders to retroactively legalize the injury to private property. In one case (the "Wallerstein Road" linking the Beit El and Dolev settlements), part of the road built by the settlers ran through Area B, area in which according to the Oslo Agreements, Israel was not entitled to seize private property for that purpose. Therefore, regarding this section of the road, the necessary requisition orders were not issued and no order was given to take control of the land. However, the IDF did not stop construction work on the road. Building new roads on the initiative of settlers, without approval of the relevant authorities, became a common element of the many illegal outposts that have been erected in the West Bank since the end of the 1990s." (B'tselem, Forbidden Roads, p. 10)

How much road are we talking about?

There are no exact figures regarding how many kilometers of bypass roads there are in the West Bank. It is safe to say that since 1967 Israel has cleared and paved hundreds of kilometers of bypass roads, some of which were built to connect specific settlements to Israel and to each other, while others were built to create an "inter-regional highway" connecting the different settlement blocs in the West Bank.

What are the bypass roads like?

The bypass roads form a modern transportation system, in places resembling major multi-lane interstate highways. They are generally wide (including significant buffer zones along the sides of the road) and well-constructed (with banked turns, clearly marked lanes, modern on-ramps and off-ramps). The system features roads that cut through (rather than routed around) large hills, as well as very long tunnels (in the area south of Jerusalem). Roads are well-lit, and include amenities such as modern signage in Hebrew and English (often indicating information only for settlements and locations inside Israel, with no indication that the driver is on a road located outside of Israel), covered bus stops (for settlers and soldiers), and in some cases, sidewalks. Since the roads are planned according to the interests of the settlers, with little or no recourse for landowners, it is not unusual to find one cut through the middle of a mature olive grove or a cultivated field. Travel on the bypass roads is extremely efficient and easy, in part because they are usually free of traffic - reflecting the fact that even after 30+ years of settlement, there are still relatively few Israelis living in the West Bank.

How do the bypass roads compare to other West Bank roads?

Many of the communities in the West Bank are on sites that have been inhabited for hundreds (or in some cases, thousands) of years, and with only a few exceptions, the transportation grid which existed in the West Bank when Israel took control of the area in 1967 involved the same routes that had existed for centuries. These routes reflect the social/economic behavior of the local population - connecting people with markets, villages, and larger population centers. Like other systems developed in areas long-inhabited before the advent of modern machinery, they tended to reflect the topography of the area, coexisting with, rather than conquering, the landscape - e.g., skirting a hill, rather than going through it. While some of Israel's investment in West Bank infrastructure since 1967 has included upgrading existing Palestinian roads, overall the investment has gone to creating an alternative transportation grid that is not geared to the needs of the Palestinian population (though at times Palestinians have been permitted to use it) and does not reflect their social/economic behavior.

Where are the bypass roads located?

The Oslo Agreement divided the West Bank into three categories: land under full Palestinian control (Area A - around 18%), land under Palestinian civilian control but Israel security control (Area B - around 22%), and land under full Israeli control (Area C - around 60%). Looking at the map created by Oslo, the majority of the West Bank is Area C - designed to include all Israeli settlements - with disconnected areas of Palestinian-controlled land (A & B) scattered throughout. The bypass roads are located throughout area C, creating a grid that crisscrosses the entire West Bank, creating in many areas a physical barrier between areas under Palestinian control (full or partial).

Are there military/strategic considerations involved?

If one starts with the premise that Israel's security is best served by making peace with the Palestinians and ensuring the development of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state, then the construction of the bypass roads is clearly at odds with the military and strategic interests of Israel.

If one starts with the premise that for military and strategic reasons (like ready access to the Jordan valley or the Jordanian border), Israel needs transportation routes through the West Bank, it is hard to make the case that the routes that Israel has actually constructed - which cater to the settlers - are consistent with these needs. Roads built to meet primarily military and strategic needs would have generated an entirely different transportation grid.

If one starts from the premise that Israeli security requires full control over the West Bank and its population, then constructing a system of roads that facilitates and cements this control makes sense. This premise, however, is inconsistent with the views of the majority of Israelis, who support a two-state solution. It is also inconsistent with the views of the international community and President George Bush, who has articulated his own strong support for a two-state solution and who has stipulated that a Palestinian state should be viable and contiguous.

Who does the land belong to?

Bypass roads are constructed chiefly on privately-owned Palestinian land. In order to build on this land, the Israeli government uses two main methods: requisitioning the land for military use, or expropriating the land for public use. Regarding requisitioning land for military use, B'tselem notes:

"International humanitarian law allows the occupying state to seize temporary control of private property of residents in Occupied Territory (i.e. land, structures, personal property) provided that the seizure is necessary for military needs. To take advantage of this, Israel defined some of the roads it planned to build as a response to meet 'military needs.' Until the end of the 1970s, Israel contended that the settlements played an important military role, so it was allowed to seize private land to establish them and build roads to serve them...The 'military needs' contention was given new meaning in the 1990s, in the wave of road construction that followed the redeployment in the West Bank. Previously the presence of settlers for whom the roads were intended, was considered an aid to the army, now, military necessity was defined as supplying safe roads for the civilian population." (B'tselem, Forbidden Roads, p. 8)

With respect to the IDF redeployment plans for the West Bank under Oslo, B'tselem observes:

"According to an examination undertaken by the State Comptroller, between August 1994 and September 1996, the army issued requisition orders in the framework of this plan for 4,386 dunam of private land, for the purpose of constructing seventeen bypass roads. In one case, Palestinian residents petitioned the High Court against requisition orders issued for their land. They claimed, inter alia, that the construction of bypass roads for the settlements could not be considered a military need. The court rejected the petition, accepting the state's argument that the construction of the roads was needed for 'absolute security needs.'" (B'tselem, Land Grab, p. 34)

Regarding expropriating land for public use, B'tselem observes:

"As a rule, requisition of property in occupied territory, unlike the temporary requisition for military needs, is forbidden under international law. The only exception is expropriation in accordance with the local law that is intended to benefit the local population. Thus, Israel relied on the Jordanian expropriation law applying in the West Bank. When defending the expropriations before the High Court, the State Attorney's Office repeatedly argued that the planned roads would also serve the Palestinian population, and that its needs were taken into account during the planning." (B'tselem, Forbidden Roads, p. 9)

Can Palestinians use the bypass roads?

Prior to the outbreak of violence in September 2000, Palestinians could, in general, use most of the bypass roads. Thus, Israel could argue (as noted above) that the roads benefited the entire population of the West Bank, including the Palestinians. Palestinians did, indeed, make use of the bypass roads wherever it made sense to do so - e.g., traveling from Jerusalem to Hebron. However, the roads' utility to the Palestinians was often limited by, for example, the absence of on- and off-ramps serving many Palestinian locales.

After the outbreak of violence in September 2000, Israel drastically reduced Palestinian access to all roads traveling through the West Bank, including bypass roads. As reported by B'tselem, an arbitrary (and unwritten) system of road controls has come into being, made up of roads on which Palestinians are absolutely forbidden (sometimes referred to as "sterile" routes); roads on which Palestinian travel is prohibited unless the driver possesses a special permit (called a "Special Movement Permit at Internal Checkpoints in Judea and Samaria" - a permit that is very difficult to obtain); and restricted-use roads, where Palestinian vehicles are not prohibited, but access is controlled by Israeli checkpoints (permanent checkpoint on some routes; periodic, or "flying checkpoints," on others). Palestinians traveling on roads that are forbidden or for which they do not have proper permits risk fines, imprisonment, and confiscation of their vehicle. The only roads on which Palestinian travel is generally unrestricted (other than during IDF operations) are those roads that are within the built-up area of a Palestinian village or town.

Bypass roads fall mainly in the category of roads that are entirely prohibited or prohibited without a special permit; these prohibitions are enforced by IDF checkpoints and other measures to physically block or sever Palestinian access to the routes (i.e., access to and from the roads for the Palestinian areas have been blocked with piles of dirt, concrete blocks, trenches, or iron gates).

"In some instances, not only is travel forbidden, but crossing the road by car is also not allowed. This prohibition restricts Palestinians from reaching roads that are not prohibited. In these cases, Palestinians can travel along the road until they reach a forbidden road, where they have to get out of the car, cross the forbidden road by foot, and get into another vehicle. In the area between Jenin and the villages situated to its east runs a "forbidden" road that links the settlements Ganim and Kadim to Israel. As a result, residents of Jalbun, Faqqu'a, Deir Abu Da'if cannot make the journey to or from Jenin in one vehicle." (B'tselem, Forbidden Roads, p. 18)

B'tselem estimates that in the West Bank there are: 17 routes on which Palestinian vehicles are completely prohibited, comprising about 124 kilometers; 10 routes on which Palestinian travel is partially prohibited, comprising about 244 kilometers; and 14 routes on which Palestinian travel is restricted, comprising about 364 kilometers.

What is the legal basis for closing roads to Palestinians?

In contrast to all other areas of Israeli activity in the West Bank, there is no legislation or written orders regarding rules for use of roads in the West Bank. Rather, as B'tselem notes,

"The policy is entirely based on verbal orders given to soldiers in the field. The strongest proof of the regime is the local population's awareness of its existence. Palestinians have almost completely ceased using many of these roads, even when entry to the road is not blocked by physical obstacles or staffed checkpoints." In response to a query from B'tselem, the IDF clarified that a broad order issued in 1970 confers the right to restrict travel "to anyone who is empowered as a military commander (i.e., the commanding officer, division commanders and their deputies, sector brigade commanders, and other officials, who are so empowered by the commanding officer)." (B'tselem, Forbidden Roads, p. 42)

Produced by Dror Etkes, Peace Now (Jerusalem) and
Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now (USA)

For the full B'tselem reports quoted in this document, see: