Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the military to let Palestinians travel on the part of a major highway that runs through the West Bank, handing Palestinians their biggest victory yet against Israel's practice of banning them from some roads.
The West Bank section of Route 443 linking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was closed in 2002 to Palestinians, after militants shot at Israeli vehicles on the highway and killed several motorists.
About half of the 20-mile (32-kilometer) highway runs through the West Bank, and Palestinian villages along the route can be easily seen behind chain fences, rows of boulders and other barriers.
Palestinians living in villages along the route petitioned to have it reopened for them in 2007, as the Palestinian uprising against Israel wound down.
The court said in a summary of its ruling that the military does not have the authority to impose a permanent and sweeping limitation on Palestinian travel along the West Bank section of the road because that "in effect transforms the road into a route designed for 'internal' Israeli traffic alone."
It also said the closure of the road "does not benefit the local population, from whom lands were appropriated to build it." The judges ruled that security considerations cannot take precedence.
"It's a huge victory," said Melanie Takefman, spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which represented the Palestinians in their petition before the court.
The restrictions caused hardships for tens of thousands of Palestinians, who were forced to travel on dirt roads to other areas of the West Bank. That problem was eased last year with the opening of alternative paved routes for Palestinians.
Palestinian Hassan Mafarjeh, the mayor of Beit Liqya village near the highway, said the alternate road was not a solution. "We reject the principle that our land is expropriated to build more roads," he said.
He said the trip to the main city in the area, Ramallah, took an hour on the dirt roads and 30 minutes on the alternate road. Using the highway would cut that to just 15 minutes, he said.
The court gave the military five months to implement the ruling.
Under existing regulations, sections of the road that lie in Israeli territory will remain closed to Palestinian vehicles, as are all Israeli roads.
Israel has created a system of roads in the West Bank restricted to Israeli use, while funneling Palestinian motorists onto alternative routes. It was the second time in recent months that the Supreme Court has ordered the military to open a West Bank road declared off-limits to Palestinians.