Rights campaigners were last night celebrating the end of "Apartheid Road" after Israel's supreme court ordered the military to open up a major highway that cuts through the West Bank to Palestinians, rather than reserving it exclusively for Israelis.
Ending two years of legal sparring between the military and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which challenged the ban on behalf of six Palestinian villages, the court ruled that the army had not taken into account the harm to the daily lives of the Palestinians caused by the closure.
ACRI spokeswoman Melanie Takefman said the ruling was " a huge victory" and one that could impact on other road closures. "We hope this will be the end of the segregated roads," she said.
The army blocked off access to the road from Beit Sira village and five others in 2002 after a series of attacks, including shootings, on Israeli motorists. Some critics of the closure charged that it was motivated by a desire to boost Israel's project of annexing swaths of the West Bank at Palestinian expense.
Its closure hit the Palestinian villagers hard, forcing them to use a long, winding route to the West Bank hub of Ramallah for work and medical services.
According to Beit Sira's mayor, Ali Abu Safia, the trip took an hour on the dirt roads, whereas using the highway would cut that to just 15 minutes.
He also claimed there had been several deaths because of delays in ambulances forced to take the longer route, and that teachers from Ramallah had refused to work in the village school because of the distance.
In his ruling, Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch said: "The use of these kinds of security means that create a complete separation between different populations in the use of roads, and deny an entire population group the use of a road, elicits a feeling of inequality and even of forbidden motives. It is incumbent upon the military commander to avoid as much as possible the use of a certain means if it results in a severe blow to an entire population and disrupts its living arrangements and living fabric."
But despite yesterday's ruling, the mayor was sceptical. "If they open it, it means there is justice," Mr Abu Safia said, but added: "I do not know if they actually will open it."
The court gave the army five months to lift the ban. At the moment, the road is heavily used by Israeli motorists, constituting an alternative route between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and a link to the dormitory community of Modi'in.
The Israeli Supreme Court is often reluctant to be seen as intervening in security prerogatives. However, it was difficult here to remain aloof since the court had, in an earlier case, in 1982, been assured by military authorities that the road – built and widened on expropriated Palestinian land – would benefit Palestinians.