Unsafe Passage

By Nadav Shragai

On the last day of May this year, Amichai Filber and his wife, Orit, were driving from the West Bank settlement of Beit El to Jerusalem. Suddenly, on the Ramallah bypass road, a Palestinian vehicle traveling at high speed lurched toward them in their lane and collided with their car. Orit, the mother of three children, was killed instantly. Tamar Weissrosen, a passenger in the car and the mother of two children, was also killed. Filber, who suffered serious injuries, was only recently discharged from the hospital.The driver of the vehicle that hit them, Ma'atan Fahd Za'al Falah, was taken to a hospital in Ramallah and discharged a few days later. The Israeli police were unable to detain him for questioning, since his family rented him an apartment in Ramallah, which effectively became a safe haven for him. Only recently did he appear, with an armed Palestinian police escort, at the office of the Joint Liaison Committee in Ramallah (on the Palestinian side), where he gave his account of the event and left without being arrested or tried.

In this case, the Palestinian police deviated from their usual practice and permitted him to be interrogated, but no more than that. In tens of thousands of other cases, however, the Israeli police don't have a clue about Palestinian traffic offenders. Chief Superintendent Yossi Peled, from the Public Security Ministry, reported that in the first eight months of 1997, "The police wrote about 60,000 tickets against locals [i.e., Palestinians], which were conveyed to the Palestinian police through the Joint Liaison Committee." He added, however, that the Israeli police have no idea what became of these tickets. Since then, an additional 100,000 traffic tickets have been forwarded to the Palestinian Authority, and their fate is similarly unknown.

Two weeks ago, when it appeared that the southern part of the "safe passage" route linking the West Bank and Gaza was about to be opened, Dalia Makeiton, another officer of the traffic police in the Samaria and Judea district, said that there was no cooperation between Israel and the PA in monitoring and enforcing traffic laws against offenders. She confirmed that many Palestinian drivers have no licenses, often drive wildly and do not carry valid insurance. The former director-general of the Transport Ministry, Nahum Langental, also said a few days ago that the PA does not cooperate with the ministry and does not report offending drivers or vehicles that have been ordered off the road.

The situation in Jordan also leaves much to be desired. A few months after the peace treaty with Jordan was signed in 1994, Israeli police detained Jordanian trucks at the Allenby Bridge border station on the Jordan River because their drivers were pulling on ropes in order to activate their brakes. At first the Jordanians were furious and claimed that the Israeli authorities' refusal to permit the trucks to proceed was undermining the peace between the nations. However, they soon came around to the Israeli point of view on the subject.

With the Palestinians, things are a lot less smooth, as Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein noted last week "with deep disappointment" in connection with other judicial matters. Israeli drivers who become involved in accidents with Palestinian vehicles bang their heads against a wall in attempts to collect insurance claims. Some time ago, the Civil Administration transferred NIS 7 million to the PA as basic capital for establishing a fund that would compensate Israeli drivers who were injured by vehicles driven by Palestinians in accidents. The money faded away, like the Palestinians' commitment to transfer to Israel 30 percent of the insurance fees they collect on every vehicle, with the money to be used for compensating Israelis injured in accidents with Palestinian drivers.

Israel is incapable of forcing the Palestinians to implement their commitments to compensate Israelis for body and property damage caused in road accidents. Nor can Israel examine the Palestinian drivers and vehicles that travel without a license or without taking a yearly car test, in faulty vehicles and without valid, original insurance documents. Israel cannot prevent these people from entering Israeli territory or from using the "safe passage."

Driving without a license is almost a norm among the Palestinians. The chief of the Negev division of the National Traffic Police, David Azulai, testified recently that 40 percent of the Bedouin drivers and drivers from the territories who use the roads in the south of Israel violate traffic laws in one form or another. Azulai did not relate that in some Palestinian villages, all the residents hold the same insurance papers, after photocopying them.

The absence of Israeli enforcement and the gross neglect of the PA regarding its commitments only perpetuate the norms with which Yesha (Judea-Samaria and Gaza) drivers are all too familiar. The chance of being injured in a road accident there is far higher than the chance of being hurt in a terrorist attack. Long before the first suicide bomber will blow himself up in his car at one of the junctions of the safe passage, the first victims of traffic accidents on the route will be recorded. Israel today lacks the tools with which to deal with accidents in which Palestinians are involved. The new passage will be safe for Palestinians but highly dangerous for Israelis.

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