Otherwise Occupied

An Arresting Drive Between Ramallah and Hebron

Traveling deep into the West Bank, far from the roads of the masters, Palestinians struggle to get home and to forget the times.

AP

With one hand holding a cell phone and the other hand darting back and forth between the gears and the steering wheel, the driver navigated the yellow Ford taxi between the trucks heading up the steep and winding road. This is Wadi al-Nar, the Kidron stream, the Palestinian “highway” east of Jerusalem, which connects the “Indian reservations” in the northern West Bank with those in the south. Far from the roads of the masters. From the minute we escaped the traffic jams around the Qalandiya checkpoint, the driver nearly flew down the road: Someone in his family was arrested or sick - it was hard to understand with the engine roaring and the radio blaring songs. But he was in a hurry to get to Hebron.

Talk about courage and fear? Ride in a Palestinian cab in Wadi al-Nar and miss a beat. In fact, two. The first, because of the driving, and the second because of the view. Pale yellow ridges and wadis (dry riverbeds), natural sculptures, flocks of sheep, villages that were already there in the days of Adam and Eve and the downy green after the first rains.

“Stop with the Fairuz and Umm Kulthum and put on the news,” complained one of the young men, who it turns out was a policeman returning home for a vacation. The driver defended himself: “All the stations are broadcasting songs — what can I do?” Without waiting for an order from the driver, before we get onto a road under Israeli control, all the passengers strap on their seatbelts. They know that on every turn of the road in Area C (under full Israeli civil and security control) wait Israeli police officers who are happy to fill the state coffers with fines from Palestinian drivers. With a sigh of relief the passengers free themselves from the seat belts when we enter Halhul.

“In the Knesset they passed a law banning the possession of knives,” announced the driver, while he was still waiting to pick up passengers in the main station in Ramallah. This came after a report on the radio about giving a body back to the family, a reminder of the times we live in, when Israeli authorities hold on to the bodies of slain Palestinians. After that it was easy to forget these times. The landscape, I’ve already mentioned. The conversation of the two young men about the new cellular devices that are worth buying. The baby in the bluish knitted suit that engulfed the world in his eyes, while he sat on the knees of his elegant mother, whose ponytail was covered by a shiny red kerchief. When he began to whine a bit, she started to nurse him. Between us a young man, with braces to straighten his teeth, fell asleep.

“Don’t drive inside Hizme village because of the police ambush at the other end,” recommended a passenger to the driver on the way back, in the evening. The driver listened to him. But the road between Ramallah and Hebron was not full of soldiers and surprise checkpoints. A little bit before the checkpoint east of Swaharah, the driver slowed down. So that the Border Police officers wouldn’t make a mistake and think he was driving too fast in an effort to flee them, and then shoot him in the back because they felt their lives were threatened.

As he slowed down, all the passengers went silent. Holding their breath, sitting up straight, tensely prepared. Observing the Border Police officers standing alongside the outside lane of the checkpoint and chatting, while eyeing us. The cab crossed the checkpoint. The seven passengers and the driver relaxing in their seats. After that once again tensing up and holding our breath when at the intersection of Beit Sahour and Lieberman Road (in the direction of Nokdim — home to the Yisrael Beiteinu leader) we notice three soldiers: One standing and looking at the road, his rifle moving. Two leaning back in their seats, listening to the grass grow.

In Obediyeh the driver stops and buys coffee a young man is making on the edge of the sidewalk facing us. The scent of cardamom fills the taxi. On the way back the driver will stop at a gas station in Obediyeh so the elderly passenger can go to the bathroom. “Diabetes,” he apologizes. “I wish you health,” a younger passenger tells him. They forgot about the fierce argument between them all the way from Beit Umar.

The argument was my fault. When the young passenger - a merchant who travels to Ashdod a lot - realized I was Jewish he began to praise the Jews and their intelligence, claiming that the rock throwers are idiots who are ruining the chance for peace and a better life. Praised and cursed and praised, until I couldn’t restrain myself anymore, and mentioned the occupation. The occupation isn’t connected, he retorted heatedly. And the old man in the middle seat turned his head and said in a voice that immediately rose into a shout: “Really? Not connected?” And before we understood what was happening they started to argue who was worse and more corrupt, the rule of the Palestinian Authority or the rule of the occupation. One says A and the other says B; the second says B and the first says A. Until the older man was sick of it and told the younger one: “Okay, okay. It’s A.”

In contrast to the merchant, my presence triggers a very different response from another passenger, who inundates us with descriptions of the acts of Israelis in Hebron. Arresting and killing and blocking and closing roads and beating. “The Nazis are nothing [compared to them],” he concludes. Everyone listens patiently and does not add a thing.

A different day, a different driver. From Bethlehem to Ramallah. He found a radio station that broadcast news. It was Israel Radio in Arabic, the announcer reminded us while we were still passing the stone houses of Beit Sahour. None of the passengers protested. Maybe they knew that a few seconds later the talk would give way to Umm Kulthum.