Israel's new Tunnels Road, an extension of Route 60, is set to open soon and connect southern Jerusalem to the Gush Etzion settlement complex. The project to expand the controversial route is seen in the West Bank as part of Israel’s plan to expand settlements and Judaize the city of Jerusalem.
According to the website of the project’s contractor, Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation, Route 60 will serve residents of the settlements of Gush Etzion, Beitar Illit, Efrat and Kiryat Arba, with daily traffic of more than 1,300 vehicles and 30 buses.
The road, according to the corporation, extends over 12 kilometers from the Rosemaryn junction in Jerusalem to the settlement of Elazar, south of Bethlehem. The project includes the construction of a 360-meter bridge and a 270-meter tunnel in the northern section of the road.
The 1-billion-shekel ($287.5 million) project, rolled out in 2018, will be Israel's first road with reversible lanes. In the morning, the road will be open for traffic from the direction of Gush Etzion to Jerusalem and in the afternoon, it will change in the opposite direction from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion.
Khalil al-Tafkaji, director of the maps department of the Jerusalem-based Arab Studies Society, told Al-Monitor, “The Tunnels Road is a huge Israeli project that aims to link east and west Jerusalem" that also involves controversial tunnels under the Old City. "The Tunnels Road aims to establish a network of tunnels that goes through mountains to connect the Israeli settlements with Jerusalem, serve the settlers and facilitate their movement.”
He added, “Many Israeli tunnels can be seen along this road. The Israeli municipality of Jerusalem built them under several Palestinian towns, such as Beit Jala, Shuafat, al-Eizariya and Abu Dis, to facilitate the movement of Israelis. Palestinians are not allowed to use these roads, except for those carrying an blue Israeli ID card.”
Tafkaji said that the Israeli authorities are accelerating the development and construction of infrastructure projects in Jerusalem, including tunnels and roads, with the aim of consolidating the Jewish majority in the city. “Israel wants to establish the so-called Greater Jerusalem project over 10% of the area of the West Bank,” he added.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about 500,000 Jewish settlers live in West Bank settlements, with more than 190,000 of them located in and around east Jerusalem.
Fakhri Abu Diab, an activist and researcher on Jerusalem affairs, told Al-Monitor, “The Tunnels Road is a very large project that starts from the south of Jerusalem to the Gush Etzion settlement, located on Mount Hebron, south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. It consists of constructing tunnels cutting through a number of mountains to shorten the distances between Israeli settlements."
Abu Diab warned that these tunnels will change the urban landscape of Palestinian cities and villages. He argued that “numerous agricultural lands planted with olive trees, grape vines, citrus trees and other crops will be razed and destroyed. The ultimate goal is impoverishing Palestinian farmers in the vicinity of Jerusalem and the West Bank and forcing them to leave. This ultimately aims to bring about demographic changes to the population in Jerusalem.”
Abu Diab added, “The new road would besiege Palestinian communities in the West Bank and speed up the pace of settlement activities in the areas surrounding Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israeli settlers believe that these tunnels will protect them as they travel, unlike other open highways.”
He continued, “Radical Jewish groups, in cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Transportation, are supervising most of the infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The Tunnels Road project was planned by the far-right Religious Zionist Party chair, Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, who previously served as a minister of transport. Smotrich is now eyeing the defense minister or head of the Israel Lands Authority job in the next Israeli cabinet. This would allow him to establish even more racist projects against the Palestinian population.”