Road Rage

A guided tour of Highway 443.

Highway 443 is a two-faced road. Its first, civilian stretch heads east from the innards of the country's densely packed coastal plain, beginning at Ginaton Junction on the eastern outskirts of Lod and leading toward Modi'in. Its second, more military-looking section, manifests itself immediately afterward and continues until it reaches the access roads into Jerusalem. The highway actually originates amid the trees, none of them fruit-bearing, planted around it, forests of pines and cypresses, which make a dark green and brownish-gray cover for the undulating hills of Judea. The Jewish National Fund started to plant trees in the region 100 years ago, and this is the oldest of its forests.

At this stage, it's a road that broadens the traveler's horizons and is convenient and user-friendly, with its moderate curves, wide and well-marked lanes, and verdant, rolling landscape on both sides. Occasionally there comes into view a broad trail that slices into the forest and winds its way to parts unknown, or a clearing in which boulders spring from the earth in blocs. Here and there, the familiar JNF picnic tables are presciently strewn, and there are water taps in the popular areas.

There are no distracting billboards along the way, so the mind - detaching itself from the material stimuli of marketing and advertising - waxes a bit nostalgic as the road curves gracefully amid pastoral surroundings.

The Ben Shemen Forest is a favorite picnic ground for many residents of metropolitan Tel Aviv and is much beloved by the various youth movements. Many hammocks have been tied with ropes to tree trunks, myriad skewers of beef and spring chicken have been grilled and scorched on barbecues there, and numberless thorns and thistles have thrust into the shoes of walkers along the forest's dry and scratchy trails, which are carpeted with needles and pine cones that fall from the trees abundantly. Every step is crunchy.

Highway 443
Nir Kafri

As the traveler continues eastward on 443, the wave of personal memories is heightened by the many memorial sites along the road. Like foam on the crest of a wave. Monuments and markers, reminders of tragedies and grief. Days of heroism, times of glory and bereavement. There is the Forest of the Martyrs of Zaglambia, commemorating what was known as "little Poland" and the 50,000 people who were massacred there by the Nazis; the so-called "forest of the plucked" and its monument to victims plucked from life in traffic accidents; the memorial sites for members of the Dan Bus Cooperative who were killed in Israel's wars, and for employees of Israel Military Industries; a monument honoring those killed on Hill No. 219 in the War of Independence; a panoply of private memorials and commemorative signs. The remains of an old plane that crashed here, this route's equivalent to the skeletons of tanks along Route 1, adds a melancholy edge and historical dimension to a trip that until now was dominated by the serene, green tranquillity that fills the eye all around - an aura of conciliation with the universe as it is.

Perhaps it only seems so, but a tempering influence of this road is discernible on drivers who use it. Some of them are returning home to Modi'in, Maccabim, Reut, Kfar Ruth, Mevo Modi'in, Beit Horon, Givat Ze'ev and neighboring locales; others are continuing on, maybe to Jerusalem. Cars move along the road one after another, and in each of them sits a driver who seems to be in a contemplative mood, immersed in thoughts of an unknown nature. Then we reach the 10th kilometer.

At the 10th kilometer, in the area of Mevo Modi'in, Maccabim Junction, the trees abruptly disappear. The hills reveal clusters of boulders, rocks and stones of every size and shape, seemingly hurled out of the earth, with a profusion of low, thorny bushes growing around them. One of the most common of those is called the prickly burnet. It's a low plant, semi-circular in shape - something like a big hedgehog, its dense branches sharp, elastic and resilient. The prickly burnet usually thrives in empty places exposed to the sun; it's considered a symbol of neglect, desolation. On the other hand, though, it's very useful.

It can be - and has been - used to make brooms, as a kind of filter for the openings of cisterns or water taps, for heating purposes, or as a material for building huts. The newly recruited paratroopers who used to train in the area, for example, were taught how to make a mattress out of the prickly burnet: to gather a mass of the plants, arrange them lengthwise to the height of a man, give them a thorough stomping with boots to break most of the thorns, spread an army blanket and sleeping bag over everything - and hope for the best. Who knows, maybe the Maccabees who roamed this area more than 2,000 years ago went to sleep on the same bushes and dreamt about things that soldiers dream about to this day?

This landscape is rough on the eye and certainly difficult to walk in, though very suitable for training an infantry platoon in open-terrain combat, or for setting alight paraffin-soaked ropes fashioned into inscriptions like "Tzafririm Scouts tribe forever" or "Ascend! Conquer! Fulfill!" But immediately, one small bend in the road later, a sight emerges that hammers the eye and voids the sweet melancholy that has pervaded the trip so far: the city of Modi'in.

The Modi'in hammer-blow. This city has no suburbs at all. And suburbs, as everyone knows, are an unparalleled means of helping one discover a city gradually. First one house and next to it a home-made jam and honey stand, let's say; then a small farmstead or a pair of homes with gardens and a backyard with a chicken coop; then a small commercial center; a garage; a gas station with a cafe and cigarettes; a few Coca-Cola billboards; and the local McDonald's. And only then - after the fact that you have reached the outskirts of a settled and civilized place has trickled into your consciousness - only then does the first neighborhood appear.

Usually you will find in it low homes, small tree-lined streets, and yards of old-timers with well-groomed lawns and an occupied doghouse.

But not in Modi'in. It bursts out all at once, and as a total surprise. It assaults the senses the instant the curve in the road after Maccabim Junction ends. There is an immense number of densely packed neighborhoods without trees or gardens, a dazzling glare cast by the white walls of the housing projects, a cacophony of building styles and ponderous residential high-rises lurching immodestly every which way.

It is impossible to ignore the hills that were ground to dust under the foundations of Modi'in and their decapitated, still-visible ruins. Modi'in looks like an overgrown city that was built in an abandoned limestone quarry. The highly developed industrial zone north of the highway does nothing to mitigate the grating feeling of disconnect between the city and its geographical location. Neither does Shilat Junction, whose heavy traffic and long traffic lights force the driver to remain in this area and peer at it against his will. Maybe from the average point of view here, everything looks different - but from a passing viewpoint, one that continues from here along Highway 443, this is what things are liable to look like.

One can hear clearly the eye groaning with pain.

In the same way as it assaults you suddenly, Modi'in disappears. You cross Shilat Junction, pass the entrance to Maccabim and Reut, and a glance to the right shows that thankfully, the city has been left behind. The pain in the eye fades, too. Not least because one's full attention is now occupied by the checkpoint at the Beit Sira Junction. It is a new checkpoint, opened in the wake of the decision by the High Court of Justice to allow Palestinians to use Highway 443, as in the past. Its purpose is to check the vehicles and the people who come from the area around the village of Beit Sira. If the Israeli driver is bent mainly on continuing eastward, and if he possesses efficient repression mechanisms, it's possible that he may not notice the barrier at all. It does not interfere with the flow of traffic.

The slice of ground that is dedicated to the checkpoint lies on the right side of the highway, at the start of the internal access road to Beit Sira; it's quite small, though surrounded by a jumble of various structures. What does it consist of? A pillbox with all its appurtenances, which lends the place the air of a terminal; illumination poles; cameras that follow every movement; highly dramatic double fences that define a narrow passage through which people are channeled in one column, which gives some structure to the meeting of cultures between the armed soldiers and the Palestinians; a chemical toilet apparently intended for the soldiers; packages of food and plastic bottles of water trampled on the ground; soft limestone and a light dust enveloping everything; a few olive trees; a fig tree that put forth its green figs some time ago; a pickup carrying a large tank and a pump that has come to empty out the toilet; two rumbling generators between the trees; thick black cables crawling every which way; a few soldiers in key places and one Border Police Jeep; and a few prominent boulders scattered around, which are used for sitting and waiting.

Sitting on one is an electrician from the nearby village, with a plastic Tnuva crate filled with tools at his feet. Until the arrival of a white van bearing yellow (Israeli ) plates to take him to work, he has time to complain about the police, who give them tickets for not wearing safety belts, "for no reason. And this whole checking thing at the checkpoints - checking when we enter, checking when we leave - it's not worth going anywhere. You pulled a fast one on us at first, but except for three cars on the first day [after the checkpoint was set up], none of our cars travel here at all," he says, and walks away.

The checkpoint site is so full of minutiae, each of a different nature, that it's hard to take everything in. Still, if the need arises to select one thing from the surrounding chaos, one thing to focus on so as to allow the mind to rest for a moment, it's worth choosing the fig tree and especially its fertility process.

You see, it turns out that the fig sprouts a kind of imaginary fruit that is really a flower. The flower blossoms in a hemisphere-shaped, closed receptacle at the heart of which is the fruit; it is sort of embalmed within the cavity of that receptacle. There are flowers there, too.

The fig is pollinated by a method you will not find anywhere else: A small wasp, maybe two millimeters long, collects pollen in its body from the flowers of the male trees, then flies to a female tree - a one-way trip. The wasp then drills a hole in the bark of the tree and, after a desperate struggle with its convoluted fibers, loses its wings and antennae in the penetration effort. When it finally makes its way into the cavity of the fruit, it pollinates the female flowers with its last remaining strength, lays its eggs and dies. The fig is dependent on the wasp and vice versa; the two are locked in a life-and-death embrace, known as symbiosis.

But towering above everything, not permitting impractical reflections such as the above, erect and with its windows sealed, stubborn and unrelenting, is the pillbox.

This turret-like structure, which to someone with a compassionate heart might look a little lonely, since it is "orphaned" from the wall that encloses it, looms at the center of the junction. The pillbox is actually a fairly massive concrete tower, rising to a height of about three meters, with an octagonal chamber made of steel and armored glass welded to its top. The round concrete "foot," widening at the base, is ensconced firmly and unequivocally in the center of the checkpoint area. This is a control post, observation post, command post and all-around highly effective deterrence post. Thought went into creating it. You can see that immediately.

On the roof, one can discern several antennas of various kinds, advanced remote-controlled video cameras swiveling back and forth, a public-address system - a pair of gray speakers from which emerge, when necessary, thick, metallic, unhesitating voices devoid of question marks - and at least one spotlight. There is no way to know who and what is inside the fortified chamber there. Is it air-conditioned? It has to be. After all, besides the soldiers, it must contain all the electronic equipment, screens, communications instruments, night-vision glasses, the hard-boiled egg sandwiches the company master sergeant brought in the morning, the chocolate bar with the cow on the wrapper, the cans of Coke ...

In the face of such a marvel of military engineering, at which one cannot help being astonished, the old emplacements of yesteryear come to mind - those the pre-state Haganah militia established back in the 1930s and '40s on the edges of Jewish settlements to provide protection against gangs of Arab marauders. What progress has been made since then. It's a whole different generation. The old-style posts look pretty innocent now. Almost friendly. Fragile, even.

Few of those original emplacements have survived, somehow. They were hollow cast-concrete cubes, quite small, roofless, without doors and with narrow firing apertures gaping all over. They were a bit shorter than a human being and in general were open to their surroundings. From them you could easily smell the fragrance of the wildflowers in the spring and the wet earth after rain, or, on rare occasions, the stench of enemy bodies rotting in the sun. You could see the butterflies and the birds, wave hello to Yoske coming from the fields on a tractor, or to Abrasha who was hurrying on horseback to a meeting of the activists' committee.

However, despite these advantages, these structures were more sensitive to the vagaries of nature. Exposed to gnats, mosquitoes and flies, and also mortar shells. To talk about the weather would be ridiculous.

Maybe it was from them, from those old posts, that office designers in the 1970s drew their inspiration when they created that new work environment, that devilishly wicked invention deceptively called "open space." Indeed, in myriad office buildings today there are rows upon rows of cubicles, rows upon rows of posts, which resemble the emplacements of the Haganah many years ago, apart from a few changes, namely:

A. The firing positions were eliminated, apparently because the designers understand the nature of the salaried worker and concluded, rightly, that such positions could revert to their original use at times of stress and rage.

B. The concrete walls were replaced by walls of plaster to which were glued short-pile rugs whose touch is like sandpaper, and which are generally a shade of bluish gray that is considered soothing. Pictures of the children and various kinds of artwork can also be pinned to them.

C. The sensuous, direct connection to nature and the landscape has been replaced in the office with more walls on which the personnel department hangs photos of the Swiss Alps. Also views of Tuscany.

D. The wild enemy charging us from amid the prickly pears and thorns has been replaced by a cultured person wearing a tie, who probably has a subscription to the Cameri Theater, and who also has - the bastard - an office of his own with a door in a corner with windows facing north and west, and is also the fellow who signs off on the monthly salary slips. A pity, though, that another office tower was built right next door and blocks his view of the sea.

After one removes oneself from the checkpoint area and from the peculiar frame of mind it gives rise to, and continues eastward, at about the 16th kilometer the character of the highway undergoes an extreme change. What had been a pleasant, even horizon-broadening road - apart from the regrettable Modi'in section - grows constantly narrower, ever narrower, until the tentacular, long-branched embrace of the walls and fences that were built along its sides reduces the width of the paved roadway, and trains the eyes exclusively forward. This stretch generates a first impression of efficiency; it is painted, marked and signposted meticulously.

This is the controversial section that was closed in the past to vehicles from the Palestinian Authority and recently reopened at the order of the High Court of Justice. It measures about a dozen kilometers, along which - according to the forecasts of learned experts - will be perpetrated acts of terror (this is where they were perpetrated in the past ). A dozen kilometers of friction between the populations. Physical and judicial friction. Until one reaches the junction of Givat Ze'ev. Accordingly, this stretch of road has become one long, fortified area, subject to heavy-duty monitoring and meticulous surveillance.

Numerous police cars ply the highway; military vehicles and Border Police Jeeps patrol the special dirt paths alongside it, which are supposed to reveal signs of potential intruders; mysterious mini-antennas have been installed in the fence; and there are all sorts of electric wires, warning signs, intense lighting, concrete cubes and dirt ramparts that block entrances and exits to and from the highway, plus pillboxes and, at a respectful distance atop high hills, mega-pillboxes. These structures soar to a height of 10 stories at least and are planted at key points along the way. Points that were of course chosen with understanding and the requisite security expertise.

A glance, nevertheless, to the sides, despite the natural recoil one experiences at the sight of all this, picks out fresh new fences on this side of the highway, or a high concrete wall on another side. It goes on like this for kilometers. Either fence or wall. The high fence splits at the top into two arms, between which lie tangles of razor wire with sharp, polished blades that glitter in the sun. Only a masochist or a complete fool would try to climb it. The fence is built mostly from sections of modular exposed concrete attached to one another, a few meters in height, and sometimes it is made of concrete covered with decorative stone in smoked earth colors.

The only exception to the design of the fence is a section of a few dozen meters, quite close to Givat Ze'ev. The contractor who built this section decided to paint on it huge vaulted windows in a style widespread in the Levant, through which a dreamy blue sea is seen. He may have thought that this design was a fitting substitute for the hilly landscape hidden from drivers' eyes by the sealed wall. Occasionally the wall stops and is replaced by a fence. Beyond it one can discern bits and pieces of roofs with black water tanks on them, and the slopes of hills covered with olive trees. It is also hard to miss the sight of the minarets of the mosques, which conduct a masculine dialogue with the pillbox towers. A conspicuous dialogue, it may be said.

Also visible are narrow roads winding between the villages, almost without cars on them. The most common vehicle is the orange Transit. The PA taxis. The usual form of public transportation here.

This section of the highway, too, exercises a palpable influence on the character of the driving. The many trucks travel lawfully on the right. Drivers keep both hands on the wheel and look straight ahead without blinking, every change of lane is done with a clear signal. Disciplined driving, though more tense than the moderate, relaxed driving that used to characterize the trip past the forests of Ben Shemen.

At approximately the 20th kilometer, immediately after a blocked interchange that normally leads to the villages of Beit Ur al-Tahta, Khirbet al-Misbah and Beit Liqya, is the Beit Horon gas station. It's the last and only gas station on this section of the highway. The gas is sold at a discount, and you can eat falafel there, drink coffee or simply wander about on the large, empty packed-earth parking lot in the back.

But alas, there is a serious breach in the fence there. A breach that overlooks the eastern homes of the village of Khirbet al-Misbah a few hundred meters away. Something in the atmosphere of this region leads the eye to search for and find these security breaches.

In the area of Beit Horon and the village of Tira, after one passes under a bridge that crosses the highway above (a bridge to whose railing a high fence has been added, which prevents the throwing of Molotov cocktails and stones, and also prevents suicides ), the only advertising poster on the highway comes into view.

It's a handwritten sign with one word: "Shakshuka." This is the ad for Para-Para.

A young man, Guy Ayash by name, from Beit Horon, a vigorous entrepreneur with a vision, as will shortly become clear, has established a mobile stand there on a rare gravel plaza that stretches between the highway and the fence, and has called it by that name. He offers eastbound travelers spicy shakshuka - an egg-and-tomato dish - and omelets, tuna, coffee and orange juice. You can get a coffee there for NIS 8.

Around his small truck he has scattered a few parasols and added in their modest shade some tables and folding wooden chairs. On one of the tables is a newspaper and on it a backgammon game; on another is a book entitled "The Revolution: Science Revealing the Truth in the Torah," by Zamir Cohen; under another table, surprisingly, two frightened young chickens huddle, and next to the table in the southern corner lies a soccer ball.

Four plastic beach chairs stand there in a row, armrest to armrest, looking out at the view and the terrifying fence that crosses it, waiting for someone to come and sit on them. You can look at the view there. Assuredly. True, the fence partly hides it, but as partial compensation Guy has field binoculars that hang above the salads in the stand, and there is no problem with borrowing them from him. Next to the chairs, four electricity poles are stuck in the ground and constitute the basis for the "Sinai-style zula" he is planning: a roof made of date palm fronds and on the ground rugs and cushions for comfortable reclining opposite the view. A pretty daring plan, under the circumstances.

As part of his industrious initiatives, he lets soldiers have black coffee and tea for free and distributes cards by which, for every half-dozen paid drinks, you get one free. He has printed his phone number on the cards for orders along the way, so that when you reach him, the shakshuka will already be waiting in a pita and the coffee in a cup. By this means you will be able to continue your trip immediately and not become a static target for terrorists who are liable to attack at any moment. The design of the card and the style in which the sides of the mobile eatery have been painted are very similar to the black-and-white of the Tara company, which as everyone knows consists of black stains on a white background evoking the hide of a cow splashed across all its dairy products, in standard unified conceptual marketing.

The highway ends at the Bituniya / Givat Ze'ev Junction. There its name changes to Highway 45 and it leads to Jerusalem, so that the final chord belongs unassailably to the Ofer base, splendidly built next to the junction. This is a frightening-looking prison fortress bearing a gloomy medieval character and structure, combined with a contemporary technocratic construction. It is an internment facility housing nearly a thousand Palestinian security prisoners. Surrounding it is a light brown-gray wall, high and smooth, and guard towers - pillboxes - stand out at each of its corners. From here, the first section of the highway seems to belong to a different world, far away and almost sane.

At the end of the High Court scramble and the claims of justice and humanity vs. the claims of security needs and control, when the dust that had been kicked up by all the deliberations and arguments has settled, the bottom line is that there are no Palestinian cars on this highway.

This hyperactive road is altogether 28 kilometers long. It is categorized by Ma'atz, the National Road Company, as a regional highway, but it is developed and maintained like a clear-cut intercity expressway. Along its entire length you will find graffiti scrawled on the wall only once. In huge letters that an unstable hand sprayed in black: "You promised a dove - we got a bulbul [the name of a bird, and also a slang term for penis]."

A pretty disappointing performance, considering the vast area of exposed concrete that awaits all the creative graffiti artists who are looking for an inspirational background. The signs on Highway 443 are the authorities' signs of control and direction: prohibitions of entry for Israeli cars into the territories of the PA, the place names, the distances in kilometers. But the best of the signs, the shiniest one, the one that makes you want to meet the talented fellow who wrote them, is undoubtedly the one that appears at the dead end of the blocked entrance to the village of Khirbet al-Misbah, which in black letters on an orange background informs you unblinkingly: "Israeli, take note, if you have arrived here - you made a mistake!"