Behind the Paratroopers’ red-and-white flags at the entrance to the base, in a warm, airless caravan lit by fluorescent lights and lined with IDF code maps, a dozen female soldiers worked a four-hour shift, their eyes fixed on the screens in front of them.
In a corner of the room, a soldier with coral-pink nail polish monitored what the IDF has deemed a “strategic route” – the West Bank section of Route 443, a 16-kilometer stretch of road linking Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The route, one of the two main roads into the capital, runs east of the security barrier. After months of near total quiet, it has witnessed a flare-up of violence, including 20 Molotov-cocktail attacks during the first two months of the year. In early February, the Israel Police unit Magen, concerned by the unpredictability of the attacks, ruled the road off limits to Israeli government ministers under its protection.
This week, after several consecutive days of quiet, an intelligence officer showed the Times of Israel the route’s hot spots and sketched the measures the IDF has taken to limit friction.
In the surveillance caravan, he noted that the pictures on the screen are provided by two cameras atop a pair of 42-meter-high (138 foot) towers along the route. The female soldier watching the screen has a daytime option of rich color and a nighttime option that projects thermal images in a blurry black and white. She has a surveillance routine, patrolling a string of troublesome spots for a set amount of time, the intelligence officer said, but she is allowed to linger elsewhere if something seems awry. In event of an attack, the soldier said, she is able to translate the scene of a crime into a set of 10 coordinates on a topographical map and to either relay that number to forces in the field or to guide them to the spot if necessary.
Speaking in her officer’s presence, she never once swiveled her head or removed her eyes from the screen. “Their powers of concentration are incredible,” the intelligence officer said, noting that very few males would be capable of maintaining the grueling attentiveness necessary to patrol a stretch of road for four straight hours.
Outside, the officer began the tour of Route 443 at the Maccabim Checkpoint, where Israeli vehicular traffic either moves east, into the West Bank, in the direction of Jerusalem, or west, toward Modiin and Tel Aviv.
Driving east, he stopped at the first Palestinian village on the route, Bayt Sira. Representatives of the village, in 2007, petitioned the High Court of Justice. They contended that the IDF had initially appropriated Palestinian land in order to modernize the old British road linking the rural communities to Ramallah, and then, after six Israelis were shot and killed along the road during the Second Intifada, had barred all Palestinians from using it, whether by car, by beast or by foot. As the violence waned, Israel began building a series of “fabric of life” roads that connected the villages along Route 443 with Ramallah, the educational and medical hub for the 55,000 Palestinian residents in the region. All roadblocks between the villages and Ramallah, on the internal roads, were removed, too, but Palestinians, still barred from using the highway, asserted that the blanket ban was both discriminatory and an example of undue collective punishment.
Chief Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch wrote in December 2009, in a concurring majority opinion, that despite the undeniable security concerns of the OC Central Command, “the decisive factor is the grave end result and not the integrity of the [commander's] considerations.” The IDF’s ban, Justice Uzi Fogelman wrote, was “disproportionate.”
The army, forced to pay the plaintiffs’ court expenses, was given five months to come up with an alternative arrangement.
Today Palestinians may enter the road in either direction. At the eastern edge though, at the Ofer checkpoint, they cannot continue on to Beitunya and Ramallah, and at the western edge, at the Maccabim checkpoint, they cannot continue toward Modiin and Tel Aviv. Those that choose to enter the road are required to undergo a thorough security check. The convenience of the highway, Btselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli said, is offset by the time spent in security checks and the inability to reach Ramallah, leaving “no reason whatsoever for a Palestinian to use that road today.”
The intelligence officer confirmed that of the 40,000 vehicles using the road daily perhaps only 10 were Palestinian. And yet, he said, keeping safe the 180 kilometers of road that run through the Binyamin Brigade’s territory alone, including this stretch on Route 443, is a continually trying task.
One reason for that relates to the nature of the threat. Stones and firebombs, while potentially lethal, are easy to hide and require no planning or accomplices. Pointing across the four-lane highway at the village of Bayt Ur a-Tahta, home to 3,000 people and stretching across nearly four kilometers of road, the intelligence officer said that from that village, a central point of friction, all someone has to do is walk down to the edge of the road with a bottle of fuel in one coat pocket and a lighter in the other. “He can keep them in the pockets of his coat and light it up one second before he reaches the road, then throw it, and escape,” he said.
Since only small parts of the road are fenced off and since the army does not have the manpower or the inclination to position soldiers all along the route, he said, ambushes in the field have become a central tactic to reduce attacks. “It’s possible that right now there is an ambush tucked into this wadi,” he said, pointing to a gentle slope dotted with olive trees and bright gray rocks, “and even if they can’t catch him and prevent the firebomb from being thrown, they can make sure that he will be arrested.”
The violence along the road has come in spurts. In June 2013, he said, there was a sudden and inexplicable rise in rock and firebomb attacks. In 2014, starting with a rock thrown on New Year’s Eve at a car carrying Habima actors back to Tel Aviv, there have been 15 attacks, using 20 firebombs and dozens of stones. The IDF, responding to threats, brought high quality troops to the area and doubled the manpower in position. “The increased manpower does its thing,” the officer said.
Since January, the IDF has arrested 24 people from Bayt Ur a-Tahta and, over the course of the past 10 days, there have been no further attacks. The officer said that all those arrested were from the same clan and may have been looking to advance some sort of agenda or to make a point with violence.
On the south side of the road, outside Khirbat al-Mizbah, the other central point of friction along the route, the officer pointed to a black mark on the asphalt, where someone recently placed a burning gas canister inside of a car tire, causing it to explode. The officer said that in some instances he receives intelligence in real time about an attack about to happen and, more frequently, only learns the names of the perpetrators later on. If they are over the age of 12, he said, they can be apprehended and pressure can be placed on their families by, say, revoking a work license.
Otherwise, they can be delivered to the Palestinian Authority’s security forces. He said that the PA’s forces have arrested dozens of people in every county across the West Bank over the course of the past year and that, while the security forces are hesitant to operate in the refugee camps, “in most places they are working and they are working well. If they don’t work, it’s because they can’t, not because they don’t want to.”
The officer, before heading back to the Maccabim Checkpoint, said that the IDF had nothing to do with the controversial decision to bar ministers from using the road – a decision that prompted one former senior intelligence officer to lash out [Hebrew] at the head of the Magen unit. He did say, though, that every stone thrown on Route 443, a crucial traffic artery, means “a phone call from the IDF Chief of Staff.”