On the Road Again, and Again and Again: The Israelis Who Spend Their Lives Commuting

Whether they are sitting in traffic jams or empathetically watching them from the locomotive – the people who spend hour after hour, day after day, on the road tell how it feels to be closed up in a metal box on wheels

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An Israeli train.
An Israeli train. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Efraim Hasson never feels lonely in the cab of his truck, where he spends an average of 12 hours every day. On a typical Wednesday morning, Hasson furrows a sunbaked brow and explains how he’s in the habit of napping on the bed built into the cab, which is strewn with notes, a white hard hat and grimy reflective yellow vest. “I have a gas stove for making myself coffee and I like being alone with my classical music or the radio news broadcasts. I can also lose my temper alone and can yell and shout alone,” he laughs.

Hasson, 60, started out as an earthworks contractor, operating various sorts of heavy machinery on construction sites across the country. Then he fell in love with a woman from New Zealand, left the country with her and remained there, working as a truck driver for several years. “The girl and I had split up, but I was fond of the place and its national rugby team, the All Blacks,” he recalls, looking back affectionately. But when he lost his work permit in New Zealand, Hasson was forced to return to the industrial zones of the Negev desert.

“Right now I am hauling bran. This morning it was soy beans. It’s something different each time,” he says, pointing at the video display whose cameras are trained on the two massive freight trailers hitched to his cab. “The Israeli truck driver converts his truck into a home. Kitchen, coffee, speakerphone, and it may not be so nice to say it but bedroom, too,” he adds.

Efraim Hasson, a truck driver.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Hasson rattles off a list of various traffic regulations and then pulls down from atop the sun visor a book that contains all the possible driving violations. “When I am driving at night, I sometimes see truck drivers with all sorts of lit-up headlamps and flashing lights. It infuriates me, and it’s a disturbance. That sort of thing is forbidden by law.”

Hasson begins his day at 4 A.M. in Kiryat Gat. He believes that private car owners simply do not understand the world of the truck driver. “There are drivers who lose their patience and then cut you off as they pass you. What are you going to do? Sometimes trucks move slowly,” he says, adding, “I would be happy if people understood that the road happens to be my workplace. Whereas you are guests here.”

According to data compiled by the Central Bureau of Statistics, in the past 15 years the number of cars on our roads has increased by some 69 percent. From the height of his cab seat, Hasson looks out on the cars sitting in heavy traffic. “From here, you can watch as all of the drivers lose their cool. True, traffic jams are a part of life when you drive a truck. But when you see a single individual in each car, you think to yourself that all of the 50 people in this line of cars could be riding on a single bus,” he says.

Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The engineer goes barefoot

Hasson is not alone in his frustration. Last March, the OECD’s Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy determined that Israel’s roads were the most densely traveled of those of any of the organization’s member states. Only one-quarter of Israelis, it revealed, use public transport.

This finding surprises Barak Azard, 34, of Nahariya, the engineer on the train to Haifa. “We transport hundreds of passengers,” he says as he presses his foot down on the locomotive pedal, generating a clicking rhythm that joins in a chorus with the clickety-clack of the tracks beneath. “Sometimes you become detached and you forget you are transporting other people. You feel all alone in the scenery,” he says.

Barak Azard in the train driver's cabin. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

One of the old-hand locomotive engineers waves his hand to the railway workers at the far end of the platform at Savidor Central Station in Tel Aviv, sits down on the ground and waits for a railway carriage that will take him home at the end of his workday. He says he takes a taxi to the train station. “The locomotive engineer goes barefoot,” he laughs.

There are 300 drivers of passenger trains in Israel and, according to Israel Railways, this past May the company hit a new record for daily passenger volume – 299,000 in a single day. “Whenever I tell someone I am a train engineer, they are simply shocked,”Azard says. “But this is not boring work. There are new challenges every day; the landscape is constantly changing.”

The train passes between the beautiful Arab houses of Bat Galim, in Lower Haifa, creating a din amid the buildings as it chugs into the station. “I’ve been driving for 10 years,” Azard says. “I used to be a security guard, but this line of work simply held a great deal of interest for me,” he explains as he points out the carcass of a wild boar laying alongside the tracks. “During rush hour, I watch the traffic jams the train passes and feel pity for the drivers.”

Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Two years ago, a report issued by the Environmental Protection Ministry cautioned that by the year 2030, Israelis would be sitting in their cars another hour each day on average. “In my view, that is just awful. I simply cannot fathom how people could still prefer to drive a private vehicle,” says Azard.

Waving to Netanyahu

Cabdriver Oren Cohen, 60, regularly awaits passengers at Hof Hacarmel railway station in Haifa. “If someone asks to be driven from Haifa to Tel Aviv, I tell him to take a train,” he laughs. “I am not willing to go into the traffic jams on the coastal highway,” he explains. Neither will he willingly drive on certain streets in Haifa during the afternoon rush hour. “Ha’atzmaut Street has become a disaster, because they’ve put the Metronit [Haifa’s dedicated-lane bus system] right down the middle of the street, and it takes up a full lane.”

Following Cohen’s refusal to take the fare, another driver was found who agreed to throw himself into the drive to Tel Aviv and the transportation inferno that exists there. However, as a quid pro quo, he insisted on setting the price in advance. Cabdriver Khaled Abtami, a resident of Ein Mahil, near Nazareth, was happy to be interviewed. “My wife tells me I am handsome from every side,” he says, smiling.

Cabdriver Khaled Abtami. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“Being in a car for so many hours is dreadful, because I’ve got diabetes and have to be physically active. By the time I get home, in the evening, I am just too tired. I am a very fidgety person; I can’t stand traffic jams,” he says. “But when there’s a passenger who insists I turn on the meter, I actually enjoy the traffic jams,” says Abtami, chuckling.

Abtami has 16 grandchildren, four daughters and three sons, among them “a teacher, an architect, a manager, a dental technician, a lawyer, a pharmacist, a law school graduate, and also Yusef, who recently completed medical school in Ukraine.”He says that good relations are the norm among cabdrivers in Haifa. “But there are some drivers who are not friends,” he confesses. “Greedy people, people who steal your fares.”

His family has lived in the same village for 350 years, and tends olive orchards. “A small portion are cured, and the rest is pressed for olive oil,” he relates. Abtami doesn’t mind the long hours he spends inside the metal box on wheels. Years ago, he had hopes of becoming a automotive safety inspector, but explains that he didn’t pass the test due to the police’s refusal to grant him a letter certifying that he lacks a criminal record. “I don’t know why. I do not have any criminal past. They always say that you don’t have a letter of good standing when they want to disqualify you and they don’t have any other excuse.”

Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

He has driven a taxi since 2007, but his original dream was to be a nurse. “I left school when I became aware of the poverty in my family. I have six sisters who weren’t able to go out to work, and I felt I was holding us back.” Over the years, he has worked as a contractor, a civil servant working at the local planning and construction committee, a field worker soliciting votes for the National Religious Party, a porter for the Coca-Cola bottling company, and a bank teller. “As soon as I start hating my work, I up and leave,” he says, explaining his multitude of jobs.

Abtami also previously worked as a bus driver for the Egged, Kavim and Nativ Express bus companies. “I was the regular driver of the Nativ Express 75 and 76 bus routes in Caesarea. I would drive past Netanyahu’s house every day,” he says with pride. “On the whole, life in the taxi is better. I have air and sun all the time. The problem is that there are other drivers.”

No buses, only unlicensed dilettantes

Jubran Masaruha, 42, a private car driver from Taibeh, has resolved not to lose his temper anymore in traffic jams. “I no longer look for ways to pass the other cars. I drive straight ahead and remain calm. I’ll get there when I get there,” he reasons.

When Masaruha leaves home for his job as chief X-ray technician at Assuta Hospital in Ashdod, he dives straight into the morning traffic snarls on Route 6. “There is an insane bottleneck, with only two lanes in one of the most congested areas of the country. One of the reasons I bought a hybrid car was to save on gasoline,” he explains.

Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Masaruha claims that although he used to work at Assuta’s main branch, in Ramat Hahayal, just outside Tel Aviv – which is closer to his home – he opted to move over to the new hospital in Ashdod: “Tel Aviv is simply the worst. My transfer to Ashdod saves me half an hour spent on the road.”

Not far from Ramat Hahayal, in the crowded business district of Bnei Brak, a frustrated Yaakov Sela, 30, from Itamar, watches the buses drive right past the stop where is waiting. “Every day, three or four completely full buses pass right by me,” he says. At 2 P.M., he reports, the Palestinian workers start heading home and by the time the bus reaches the area where he works, there is no room for any more passengers. “I watch the Palestinian workers who wait with me, and at some point they give in and take rides from unlicensed taxis – big vans that are not, of course, licensed as taxis, and which take more money from them.”

A desperate Sela says he’s decided to buy his own car to avoid the protracted bus-stop wait at the end of each workday. “It still takes me an awful lot of time to get home. I feel I’m wasting time, but I would prefer to be stuck for an hour in traffic jams than to be stuck for an hour at a bus stop and then another hour on the road,” he says. “If there were decent public transportation, we would be spared a lot of the traffic jams.”

Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik


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