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Israel to extend sovereignty over settlement roads in the West Bank

Israeli transport minister announced plans to improve roads in the West Bank settlements, which Palestinians will have limited access to
This picture taken from Jerusalem shows the Israeli road driving through the West Bank town of Bethlehem to the Israeli Gush Etzion settlement block (AFP)

Israel is seeking to impose "transportation sovereignty" in the occupied West Bank, with a budget of $228m approved this week for a new tunnel connecting a major settlement, Gush Etzion, with Jerusalem.

Bezalel Smotrich, Israel's minister of transport, an MP from the right-wing Jewish Home party, is planning to include Israeli settlements in the framework of Israel's national transportation, according to Israel Hayom newspaper.

So far, a budget of 800 million shekels ($228m) has been approved this week by authorities for a second tunnel to connect the southern settlement of Gush Etzion to the city of Jerusalem, a one-lane route that currently suffers heavy traffic.

The completion of the tunnel and the route in the coming years means that the two lanes will serve both ways, connecting the southern Israeli settlements in the West Bank with Kiryat Araba settlement, near the city of Hebron.

Bezalel Smotrich, minister of transport (Wikimedia)
Bezalel Smotrich, minister of transport (Wikimedia)

Smotrich has also reshuffled some positions within his ministry and shared plans with Israel's defence ministry in aspects relating to road construction and transport.

His long-term goal, according to Israel Hayom, is to include all of the settlements in the West Bank into a transport masterplan, so that in any future national planning, settlements will be dealt with as part of towns and cities within the 1948 borders of Israel.

"I do not give preference to Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] but also am not willing to continue the discrimination. These areas will receive treatment just like anywhere else in Israel," he said.

"While it is only about roads and trains, it has political significance."

The transport ministry has also accelerated the paving of other vital roads in the settlements including Route 446, as well as the $4.3bn project of widening the road from Neve Yemin, a town in Israel, to settlements near the city of Nablus, both in the north of the West Bank. They are expected to be opened in January 2020.

These plans are significant as it means that settlers in the West Bank will have improved roads which Palestinians have limited access to, and they go hand-in-hand with settlement expansion, in contravention of international law, which deems it illegal.

Smotrich said there had been "cumulative planning and implementation gaps" in the West Bank for many years.