Analysis |

Abductions Won't Stop Settlers From Hitchhiking

For religious teens in single-sex schools, there are few places they can feel as free as on the road. For them, hitchhiking isn't just a way of getting around - it's a rite of passage.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Young women hitchhiking near the Israeli settlement Itamar, in the West Bank, June 27, 2006.
Young women hitchhiking near the Israeli settlement Itamar, in the West Bank, June 27, 2006.Credit: David Bachar
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The best tremp (hitchhike) of my life was from Tzemah Junction, near Lake Kinneret, all the way to Liberty Bell Park, a five-minute walk from my parents’ home in Jerusalem. The fact that I remember that ride, in the back of a dilapidated white van so clearly, out of hundreds of hitchhiked rides during my late teens and early twenties, is because in our constant discussing of trempim, I would have boasted to my friends about how quickly I got home that day, from the base on the northern Golan Heights, 200 kilometers door-to-door, in just two trempim (one ride from the gate of the base to Tzemach) without any need for public transport.

Thinking about it now after all those years, the thing I find most amazing was the nonchalant way I took those rides. Only a few weeks before, I had attended the funeral of a classmate, Yaron Chen, who while waiting for a tremp was dragged by Palestinians into a car outside his base near Bet El, shot and killed within minutes. Just a few months earlier, I was part of the search party that discovered the body of Joshua Friedberg, a Canadian volunteer in our company. Five days before he had accepted a ride at a trempiada (hitchhiking station) at the main exit from Jerusalem, and after a struggle was shot and thrown out of the vehicle into the scrub alongside the Jerusalem-Tel-Aviv highway.

Losing two friends in such similar circumstances didn’t in the least deter me, or anyone else I knew at the time, from continuing to hitchhike. Starting in the late 1980s, abductions and killings of Israelis, mainly soldiers, by the Palestinian terror organizations was a regular, sometimes even monthly, occurrence. And of course it wasn’t only security-related. In 1985, a female soldier was abducted in the Negev by a man who gave her a tremp and then brutally raped her, shot her and left her for dead, though she survived. There were many such cases of sexual assault during hitchhiking but this one became a national trauma, as it was the first serious crime to be reenacted in detail on prime-time television for the purpose of eliciting information from the public. Hundreds of suspects were questioned but “the rapist from the south” was never caught.

Hallowed institution

No one thought that hitchhiking should be forbidden as a result of these cases. For decades, basically since the establishment of the state and the Israel Defense Forces, tremping was a hallowed institution. A constant media campaign encouraged drivers to offer soldiers rides and trempiadot were built at every major highway intersection. There just didn’t seem to be any other efficient way to get to and from far-flung bases with infrequent or even nonexistent bus service. The fact that many of these bases were in Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was neither here nor there.

Before leaving the base, every soldier would be briefed by an officer who repeated the standard warnings – no taking trempim from Arabs or foreigners, no rides in rental cars (rumored to be used by kidnappers), no sitting in front if there were potential stranglers in the back seat, no falling asleep, keep your rifle on you at all times. And off you go, to rely on the kindness of strangers.

The army only got around to forbidding trempim after the capture and subsequent murder of Nachshon Wachsman, in October 1994. Wachsman was the rare exception — a captured hitchhiking soldier who was kept alive for bargaining purposes. I remembered Nachshon from the schoolyard, he was a few grades below me. The baby-face of this soldier on television, reciting the Hamas demands on the video his captors released, was etched into the memory of every Israeli.

Wachsman was killed in a botched rescue operation, along with his captors and an IDF special-forces officer. It was a national trauma that finally caused the army to reassess its entire hitchhiking policy and eventually to completely prohibit soldiers from catching rides with strangers. Today this policy is enforced by showing conscripts “snuff films” during basic training and through the actions of an undercover Military Police unit that “abducts” and punishes careless soldiers.

The shift away from hitchhiking extended beyond the military. Most Israeli parents were no longer prepared for their children to be exposed to the mercy of random drivers. Israel was becoming more affluent. Most parents now had cars, and they could drive their kids themselves or, if they were old enough to drive, give them the keys. Even public transportation improved somewhat, and parents could afford to give their children money for the bus or a taxi.

Hitchhiking is no longer a national pastime, but it has not been eradicated, to the surprise of some people. As Israeli families sat around their Shabbat tables Friday night, still reeling from the news that had just broke, after many hours of conflicting rumors, about the three teenagers who had disappeared, presumably kidnapped from a trempiada in the West Bank, by terrorists, the question that invariably arose was, “What were they thinking, hitchhiking in the middle of the territories?”

Those asking the question were of course members of secular families living well within the Green Line. Like most Israelis, they have seldom been to the West Bank, certainly not recently. But even they should have noticed that at the trempiadas near where they live (no one has thought to remove these concrete shelters), where soldiers and civilians of all stripes and shades once stood, today you can mainly see teenage boys in with knitted kippot and girls in skirts or wide pants. Yes, the young generation of the dati leumi (religious Zionist) community still hitchhikes, and loves it.

Why do they do it, and how do their parents let them? The answers, both logistical and psychological, are numerous. For a start, the religious in Israel are the only community in which a significant proportion of children still go to boarding school. Many of these schools are in small West Bank settlements, where bus service is infrequent. Many of the students are themselves from settlements (although two of the three teens who were abducted on Thursday live within the Green Line), or have friends and relatives in settlements. They also tend to go hiking, without adults, much more often than their secular counterparts.

On the road

But there are much deeper reasons, that go beyond logistical necessity. For mitzvah-observant adolescents who have been going to gender-segregated schools since before puberty, there are few places where they can feel as free and as unregulated as on the road. And for them, the roads of Judea and Samaria — the West Bank — are not the dangerous, ominous regions they seem to most Israelis. To them it’s home, and no one, certainly not the IDF officers who periodically warn the settlement elders of the perils of allowing their children to hitch rides, will tell them they can’t travel freely throughout their homeland. Trempim to them aren’t just a way of getting around — they’re a rite of passage, a way of life, a declaration of independence and of ownership of the land.

“I spoke about it with my kids over Shabbat,” says Eliaz Cohen, an educator and poet who lives in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, very near to where the three abductees presumably caught their fateful ride. “It’s clear to all of us they will continue taking trempim and it has nothing to do with the frequency of buses to the kibbutz. It’s about the feeling of total freedom that trempim give them — there’s no way they are giving up on it, and no way I would demand that of them. Maybe they’ll take a few more precautions in the near future, but nothing is going to change.”

Many in the religious Zionist and settler communities are affronted by the attention now being focused on their children’s hitchhiking habits, feeling that the blame is being shifted away from the kidnappers. Kalman Liebskind, a religious columnist for the Maariv Hebrew daily, wrote ironically on his Facebook page Sunday morning: “If I understood correctly, it wasn’t Arabs who kidnapped the three youngsters, it was the trempim. Therefore the government of Israel should announce that it will hunt down the trempim.”

Danny Hirshberg’s son studies with two of the abducted teens, and was nearly there with them at the trempiada on Thursday night. Hirshberg is the secretary general of the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement, and as such he is one of the community’s highest-placed educators. In an interview with the Ynet news site he responded angrily to questions about hitchhiking in connection to the abductions. “The emphasis should be on the safety of civilians, not on how they behave. They are behaving reasonably, logically and it’s probably impossible or unreasonable to act otherwise.”

Regardless of how the saga of the three kidnapped teenagers ends, their friends won’t stop hitching rides anytime soon. If anything, they may take trempim in defiance.

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