After years of work by activists and the local municipality, eastern Gush Etzion will now be reconnected directly to Jerusalem.
The new road, which was opened Friday morning, will make the drive from eastern Gush Etzion to Jerusalem less than ten minutes. Residents now travel upwards of 45 minutes, much of it in the wrong direction, to reach the capital.
Eastern Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem and straddling the Judea Desert, has been isolated from the capital ever since the start of the Oslo War in 2000, when the road connecting it to Jerusalem was deemed too dangerous to drive on.
Even before that, residents faced intermittent attacks following the deployment of armed PLO forces in nearby Bethlehem in accordance with the Oslo Accords. In the mid-90s, when about 90 percent of the residents of Judea and Samaria benefited from the Rabin government’s construction of bypass roads around areas handed over to the PLO, eastern Gush Etzion was not included.
Protests in Recent Years
Several grassroots protests aimed to pressure the government to open the road, which lay nearly finished for over a year. Local residents of Tekoa, Nokdim, Maaleh Rechavam, Meitzad, Pnei Kedem and Maaleh Amos stood to benefit most from the road’s opening, but residents of western Gush Etzion towns like Efrat also sought the opening of the road as an alternative route when traffic tie-ups or accidents block off the main Tunnels Road on the Jerusalem-Hevron Highway.
Marches were held and activists tried to traverse the remaining unpaved segment of the road. Last December, MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) said at one of the protests: “It is Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Chief of Police Moshe Karadi who are preventing the opening of this road. They are doing so for political reasons alone.”
Now, with Peretz out of the picture after losing Labor Party elections and Karadi forcibly retired due to police corruption, the road has now finally opened.
Last week, Gush Etzion’s municipality sent out a message announcing the road’s opening. “After many years of anticipation, and countless efforts with government offices we are happy to finally announce the opening of the new Jerusalem – Gush Herodion Highway (or Zaatra bypass road). The name Gush Herodion Highway comes from the fact that the road runs just below the flat-topped Herodion fortress constructed by King Herod." The King’s tomb was recently uncovered at the site as well.
The highway opened at 6 AM, with a festive ceremony at the Mizmoria Junction at the Jerusalem side of the highway. A convoy left from the Herodion at 7:30 AM.
“In the first stage, the highway will be open daily from 6am-6pm only,” the municipality wrote to residents. “We are continuing to work together with the IDF to extend the hours.”
Activists Happy, Apprehensive
Anita Finkelstein, who heads Tekoa’s grassroots Action Committee, says she has been waiting for the construction of the bypass road since it was mentioned to her upon her moving to Tekoa 21 years ago.
She and her neighbors are still apprehensive. They have been informed before of the opening of the road, and are waiting until they see it up and running before they believe it. They are reluctant to take the opening of the road as a sign that they will now be included "inside" the route of the Partition Wall - which they are now set to be excluded from.
Overall, however, local activists are pleased that one of their goals has been reached. “All of us feel that everything we did was important to bringing this day,” Finkelstein says. “We hope and pray that it will encourage tourism in the region and that more and more people will decide to live here.”