For Israeli security personnel who guard the strategically significant Route 443, one of only two highways connecting Jerusalem to Israel’s coastal plain along the Mediterranean Sea, the difference between stopping contraband food or an armed terrorist isn’t very large.

“I tell the soldiers here, if you caught food smugglers, you also prevented a future terrorist attack. Someone who smuggles eggs into Israel will then try to smuggle people. If he sees this succeeds, he’ll smuggle in terrorists after that,” said Lt.-Col. Arik Yaakobi, commander of the IDF’s Military Police Taoz Battalion.

Route 443, a busy traffic artery, is anything but an ordinary highway. If anything would happen to Israel’s Route 1, Route 443 would be the only main connection between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But unlike Route 1, it runs right through Palestinian areas, in between hostile villages that overlook the traffic from nearby hills.

Map with Israel’s Route 443 highlighted in red. Credit: OpenStreetMap via Wikimedia Commons.

“There is this big tension upon which sits the fabric of life here,” Yaakobi told JNS during a jeep tour of the area. “The big majority of the Palestinian population just wants to make a living honorably. We have to be able to distinguish between them, and the one who comes to attack. This requires a huge intelligence effort, and our ability to identify intentions.”

These days, Route 443 experiences at least one attack a week, in the form of a firebombing or rock-throwing. Recent weeks have seen an uptick in incidents, as Israeli-Palestinian tensions rose following President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Yet current incidents are down compared to the events of 2015 and 2016, when high levels of terrorism, most of it unorganized, occurred.

“This is a highly threatened crossing,” Yaakobi said, as his jeep pulled up at the Bell checkpoint. “This road leads to Ramallah, and several Palestinian villages. Soldiers here on the highest alert, with a bullet in the barrel.”

Yaakobi, a 40-year-old father of three from northern Israel, commands units that are in charge of crossings between Israel proper and Judea and Samaria (the territories), guarding “gates” that stretch from the Jenin area in the north to the Ofer Crossing near Jerusalem. His battalion secures crossings on Route 443.

Lt.-Col. Arik Yaakobi, Commander of the Taoz Battalion, standing at Maccabim Crossing. Credit: Yaakov Lappin.

Standing at Maccabim Crossing, where the highway leaves Israel, Yaakobi explained why Route 443 requires military protection.

“Without going into politics, what’s west of the crossing is Israel,” he said. “To the east is Judea and Samaria. A big part of the Israeli population does not understand this at all when it drives here. There are six Palestinian villages on the right and left side of this highway.”

Fifteen years ago, during the second intifada, the highway experienced many security incidents, particularly firebombing and rock-throwing attacks on cars. That led the Israeli government to ban Palestinians from the highway. The country’s High Court of Justice, however, deemed that decision illegal in 2007.

“The High Court said that the road runs through Judea and Samaria, so the state cannot prevent Palestinians from driving here. It told the state to manage the security risk. That’s where we come in,” Yaakobi said.

Today, anyone—Israeli or Palestinian—can drive down Route 443 in the sections that run through the territories (though most cars are driven by Israelis). The Taoz Battalion maintains checkpoints and crossings, operating at varying levels of severity, that scrutinize all vehicles seeking to merge with the traffic. The battalion also runs crossings such as Maccabim, through which Palestinians with permits enter Israel daily for work or humanitarian purposes.

“We’re trying to make the crossing process faster and more efficient all of the time, to improve the quality of life for all populations,” Yaakobi said.

Life-and-death decisions

In March 2016, a Palestinian pedestrian approached the Bell checkpoint just before it closed down for the night. Soldiers gestured for the man to head back, and he turned around, as if to comply.

“The soldiers also turned around, turning their backs to him, and that was their mistake. He produced a gun and shot them both. They were injured in the legs. Both made a full recovery,” Yaakobi recalled. The terrorist escaped on foot, only to be arrested a few months later by the IDF.

This checkpoint is at Level 4, the highest level of screening, the commander explained. “Every vehicle that arrives here is stopped and searched. All of its occupants are checked,” he said.

“We set the level in line with intelligence alerts. When we see a rise in the chances of an incident, we raise the level of scrutiny, Yaakobi added.

Soldiers rely on their training to pick up suspicious signs, whether in vehicles, drivers or pedestrians, and they must make split-second decisions around the clock. The Taoz Battalion intercepted five separate attempts by terrorists in recent months to arrive at the IDF’s Samaria Court with pipe bombs. Had the attacks not been foiled, they would have struck a highly symbolic blow against a military official building.

The young soldiers and officers stationed at these places make life-and-death decisions every time they let a car pass, particularly at crossings that lead into central Israel or Jerusalem. “They have a second to look at the car. If the soldier clears the vehicle, they are actually saying, this person will not go to Tel Aviv or Modi’in to conduct a terror attack,” Yaakobi said.

The personnel are assisted by a network of high-tech cameras and other means, but most of the major decisions are still based on their training—and their eyes. “Israeli citizens have no idea any of this is going on. Nor should they be concerned with it,” said Yaakobi. As his vehicle passed a gas station, he recalled that an IDF soldier was stabbed to death there in November 2015 by a terrorist, who was shot dead by soldiers at the scene.

Sec.-Lt. Inbal (full name withheld for security reasons), the crossings commander at Maccabim, had the morning shift—which, like all shifts, lasts for eight hours—when Yaakobi visited her crossing.

“My company is in charge of this crossing, to let other companies head out to training. We’re here for two-and-a-half weeks,” she told JNS.

“Lots of infiltrators try to enter Israel illegally,” she said. Just that morning, her personnel intercepted an electric shocker disguised as a flashlight.

“We have to grow accustomed to this place,” added the crossings commander, looking at the Maccabim Crossing bustling with vehicles in multiple lanes, which were carefully watched over by young soldiers who stopped a vehicle every once in a while. “It takes time.”