By Josh Hasten
(JNS) Israel’s Ministry of Transport and Road Safety announced last week that it had submitted an unprecedented 50 billion shekel (around $13.7 billion) budget proposal to the Ministry of Finance for the development and improvement of transportation over the next five years.
Twenty billion shekels (about $5.5 billion) of that funding is included in the proposed 2023-24 state budget.
The plan puts a special emphasis on improving infrastructure and road safety in communities within Israel’s geographic periphery, while also focusing on enhancing the transportation routes between the north and south with the center of the country, which houses the majority of the population and its main business centers.
At the same time, a document released by the Finance Ministry (signed by representatives of both ministries) and obtained by JNS details specific projects totaling more than 3.5 billion shekels (some $960 million) earmarked to improve transportation in Judea and Samaria.
The work in the area beyond the Green Line aims to enhance security in the face of constant terrorist threats, improve road safety and thus reduce traffic accidents — all too frequent on these routes — and alleviate the traffic jams.
The most significant allocations include a 2-billion-shekel ($547 million) project to significantly widen Route 60, the main north-south highway traversing Judea and Samaria, in both the Binyamin and Gush Etzion regions. Motorists in those areas, especially near Jerusalem, have been plagued with snarling traffic in recent years when trying to enter the capital city.
According to reports, in certain areas the highway will be widened to three lanes in each direction, with one lane in each direction marked for public transportation.
Other projects listed in the document include a new road that will bypass the Palestinian Authority (PA) village of Al Funduq on Route 55 in Samaria — 200 million shekels ($55 million); the widening of the Beit El community’s main access road — 366 million shekels ($100 million); and the widening/expansion of the highway connecting Ariel to the Tapuach Junction — 500 million shekels ($137 million).
The document obtained by JNS also mentions an additional allocation of half a billion shekels toward other highway infrastructure and expansion projects, without detailing the specifics.
Based partially on that supplementary budget, along with some of the project approvals detailed in the document itself, Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shlomo Neeman, who is also chairman of the Yesha Council representing Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, released a statement expressing his excitement that projects which the Yesha Council prioritized will now come to fruition.
Neeman recited the Shehecheyanu prayer used to celebrate special occasions and said: “This is huge news for residents of Gush Etzion and the whole region.
“I am glad to announce a real revolution in our transportation department. Our long and hard work, and that of other special people, has paid off greatly and successfully with the approval of road development plans worth unprecedented sums,” he continued.
“A big thank-you to the minister of finance, Bezalel Smotrich, who made these plans a top priority for the sake of the safety of the residents here. I also congratulate and acknowledge the minister of transportation, Miri Regev, for her full cooperation that contributed to the success of the process and for steering the ministry to focus on our area, with God’s help,” Neeman said.
“Many, many people have asked me about the true difference between this government and the previous government for our community and, with my hand on my heart, I answer that it was worth it [the governmental transition] just for this! There is a lot more to come,” he said.
Neeman detailed specific transportation projects in Gush Etzion that he hopes will now move forward.
However, not everyone is on board with earmarking funds for transportation in Judea and Samaria.
Labor Party head and former Minister of Transport Merav Michaeli took to Twitter to express her opposition to the proposed budget, writing:
“Bezalel Smotrich and Miri Regev are leading the ‘second-class citizens’ campaign; but at the same time, they are taking hundreds of millions from public funding to build roads that will be used mainly by the settlers. (Less than 5% of the population will receive 25% of the budget. That’s crazy.)”
She added, “Make no mistake, this is mainly at the expense of investing in roads in the periphery. This is how the Likud leadership has been perpetuating the weakness of the periphery for decades.”
During her stint as minister, Michaeli froze road projects throughout Judea and Samaria, including the Huwara bypass road. Numerous terrorist attacks have taken place in the often-hostile PA village of Huwara, outside Nablus, in recent months, including the murder of Har Bracha residents and brothers Hallel Yaniv, 21, and Yagel Yaniv, 19, in February.
In October 2022, JNS reported that,during an exchange with an audience member on Channel 12, Michaeli justified divesting from Judea and Samaria, saying, “It’s a shame to invest in a place that, at the end of the day, won’t be part of Israel.”
Eve Harow, director of tourism and education for the One Israel Fund organization, which supports projects throughout Judea and Samaria, responded to Michaeli’s tweet, telling JNS: “The rest of the country has vast budgets for roads. Why should we, as Israeli citizens who pay taxes and have our children conscripted, be discriminated against?
“The safer new roads along with the improved infrastructure will be utilized by Arabs and Jews alike. Is Michaeli suggesting that in order to hurt the Jewish residents we don’t build roads that will also benefit our Arab neighbors? Is she saying we shouldn’t let them drive, implying that she is pro-segregation? For shame,” said Harow.
Likud Member of Knesset Dan Illouz tweeted that the proposed transportation budget represents “an amazing day towards strengthening Judea and Samaria.”
He also clarified that the budget plan also calls for the improvement of cellular service throughout Judea and Samaria, which is crucial for the security of motorists.
He told JNS, “The security situation on the roads in Judea and Samaria is problematic, and our bloodthirsty enemies are costing us precious lives. There is a huge gap between the infrastructure in Judea and Samaria and the rest of the country, which needs to be addressed through increased investment not only to close gaps but also to save human lives.
“The previous government neglected the needs of the Judea and Samaria area, including its roads. Our aim is to build and protect, and I thank Minister Smotrich, Minister [of Communications Shlomo] Karhi and Minister Regev for their work on these matters. I have called for a discussion after the [Knesset’s holiday] break to address the state of the roads in Judea and Samaria in which we will assert our commitment to ensuring the safety of the residents,” Illouz said.