Jerusalem has started construction on parts of an NIS 3 billion (approximately $870 million) major highway that will eventually serve as a ring road around Israel’s largest city, with the goal of significantly alleviating traffic throughout the capital. At the same time, planners hope that the project will provide easier access for those entering or passing through the city from all sides.
Construction has already commenced on the southern and central sections of the Eastern spur of the highway, which consists of a three-pronged, 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) stretch of pavement known as “The American Road.” When fully completed, the road, which will include bridges and tunnels, will stretch from the Arab neighborhood of Tzur Baher in the southeast to the Naomi Shemer Tunnel in the northeast on Mouth Scopus.
The road got its name as a result of an American company that planned and began construction in collaboration with the Jordanian government in the 1960s. However, the plan was never completed after Israel retained full control of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six-Day War. Israeli authorities did build parts of the southern section, which today only consists of a small and barely functional narrow road. The cost of this Eastern spur is estimated at around NIS 860 million ($250 million).
The American Road project, with two-thirds scheduled to be completed in 2021 and the final part to begin that same year, is under the auspices of the Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation, the main construction arm of the Jerusalem Municipality and the Ministry of Transportation, and is one of the leading municipal companies in Israel.
Dan Shoshani, a spokesman for Moriah, told JNS that “this important project is the biggest infrastructure project undertaken by Jerusalem in the last few years.”
He said that it “will serve residents from all communities, both Jews and Arabs and will lessen traffic significantly.” Shoshani stressed that the American Road will, in fact, have its greatest impact on the Arab residents who live in the Eastern side of the city.
‘One big united city’
However, not everyone is convinced of the merit of the project or the motivations behind it.
Sari Kronish an architect with “Bimkom‒Planners for Planning Rights,” an Israeli human-rights organization of professional planners and architects, told JNS in an email statement that “the central part of the [American] road was originally built during Jordanian control to connect villages in the outskirts of Jerusalem to each other, but it is now being seized for use by thru traffic, specifically settler traffic.”
In other words, Bimkom, along with several other organizations, has expressed its opinion that the project is going forward specifically to provide easier access to the city for residents of Judea and Samaria, but isn’t being built in a proper way to fully serve Arab populations.
Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Arieh King adamantly disagrees. He told JNS that “the road will positively impact the Arabs of Jerusalem more than any other population.”
He explained that “today, if you are an Arab in Tzur Baher, for example, and want to get to other Arab neighborhoods further north like Jabel Mukaber or Silwan, you have to go west, north and then back east again using Derech Hebron (“Hebron Road”)—a narrow thoroughfare with many traffic lights. This new highway is being planned with access from all of these neighborhoods, which will significantly reduce travel time. The bottom line is that for the Arabs, having access to their neighborhoods will be an incredible addition to their standard of life.”
King also detailed how the American Road will connect to other major Jerusalem arteries in order to eventually form the loop around the city. He noted that the second stage of the plan is to build a tunnel connecting the southeast neighborhood of Har Homa to Gilo in the south and the Begin Highway in the west, with Begin serving as the Western spur on the loop. An expansion of the Gush Etzion/Jerusalem tunnel road is already underway leading into the city from the south, which also meets up with Begin.
He said that the Northern spur of the loop will form a direct connection between Highway 1 (the Tel-Aviv Jerusalem road), allowing for motorists to travel directly to the Dead Sea without having to cross through Jerusalem and avoid sitting in traffic.
When asked about those who oppose the construction, King said, “I have met with tens of Arabs, including leaders who are in favor of the project. I didn’t find one Arab who is against this plan. In addition to traffic alleviation, this will increase the value of apartments and real-estate [in the eastern parts of the city].”
In fact, King’s hope is that the project will encourage more Jews to live, work and tour in eastern areas of the city. He says that today, “there are no Jews there. Once you have a highway with facilities surrounding [it], such as shopping centers and industrial areas, it will be easier to convince Jews in the long run to move there.”
On the other hand, Kronish says that the city has it wrong when it comes to possible development alongside the historic segment of the road, saying “the development rights that are proposed include a problematic ratio of housing to other uses, thereby not providing a solution to the housing crisis and also not really offering the necessary stimuli for other forms of development.”
She added, “This approach is indicative of the way Israeli planning policy towards Palestinian East Jerusalem in recent years: They focus on all urban land uses except for housing, while the housing crisis continues to surge. And if they have to address housing, it is done in a way that is de facto unimplementable.”
While King stressed the importance of development opportunities alongside the road, he thinks that the potential construction components are “a byproduct of project.”
“The main goal is the road, with similar loop-highways existing in many other metropolitans around the world,” he said. “We want Jerusalem to be one big united city under Israeli sovereignty.”
He added that “those who oppose the road are de facto calling to keep Arabs stuck [both literally and figuratively] in an underdeveloped area.”