Opinion

How Many Israeli Soldiers Does It Take to Fix a Flat Tire?

Or better put, what’s the real reason a Palestinian in the West Bank would stop to help?

A Palestinian changes the tire of a military vehicle
Dror Etkes

What do three Israeli soldiers do when their heavy off-road vehicle gets a flat tire? They stop on the roadside and change the tire, you’d say. But no, not if we’re talking about Tuesday August 28, 2018, at around 6 P.M.

The soldiers stopped, of course. But it was a Palestinian who changed the tire. Three soldiers, two of them armed, wandered around nearby. The jack had been borrowed earlier from a passing Palestinian pickup truck.

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The following was the response by the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office to a Haaretz query on the matter. A group of soldiers, the statement said, “stopped their vehicle near the village of Ras Karkar due to a flat tire. An investigation of the incident reveals that passing Palestinians offered to help fix the flat of their own accord.”

After the flat was fixed with the Palestinians’ help, the statement concluded, the soldiers drove off. “We stress that from the investigation it emerges, in contrast to the [journalist’s] claim, that the soldiers did not ask the Palestinian vehicle to stop and help them,” the IDF said.

Not being members of the transportation authorities, let’s set aside the question of why there was no suitable jack in a military vehicle and how it happened that three soldiers who know how to drive around Palestinian villages in a heavy vehicle can’t fix a flat. But to present the story as camaraderie among drivers, that’s going too far.

The trees that were vandalized in the West Bank.
Iyad Hadad,/B'Tselem

Let’s make things clear. Palestinians helping drivers change a flat tire is a common sight. But Route 463, which leads to Ras Karkar, isn’t a neutral place where harmony and brotherhood prevail between various groups.

Every day for the last week, Israeli soldiers have fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated metal bullets at the residents of the villages near the road, who are protesting the building of a new outpost in the heart of their land. This outpost will create a barrier between three villages: Kafr N’ima, Kharbatha and Ras Karkar.

Experience tells us that the outpost’s residents will terrorize the farmers and shepherds.

The whole area, west of Ramallah, is already fragmented by settlements, outposts and roads that cut through orchards. With the army’s assistance and settler-initiated violence, these large pockets – including the village springs, farming and hiking areas – have become off limits to Palestinians.

Presumably the resident of Ras Karkar who saw the soldiers having trouble changing their tire decided to volunteer to help. The faster they’d get out of there, the better for him. What did he need a few youngsters throwing stones at the soldiers (as a legitimate and natural way to say that soldiers have been and are unwelcome invaders), and then the soldiers shooting and calling for reinforcements, and at the very least firing tear gas that would waft into the houses and choke the babies and grandpa?

But did the driver of the pickup truck, whose jack the soldiers took, stop of his own free will or did the soldiers force him to stop?

The soldiers apparently told their commanders, following a query by the spokesman’s office, that everything was voluntary. But that’s not what Dror Etkes, a researcher on Israeli settler policy, heard. Etkes, who happened to be there exactly that day and hour, asked the soldiers: “What, the army doesn’t know how to change a tire?”

One of them answered that the jack wasn’t the right one, that they had spoken with the company commander who told them to “manage,” and that they had stopped a passing pickup truck. Could the driver, in occupied territory, refuse them?

"Jews don't keep silent," hate-crime graffiti was spray-painted on Palestinian cars in Sinjil, August 27, 2018.
Iyad Haddad/B'Tselem

Etkes wasn’t there by chance. He had come to check out the outpost under construction nearby, in a huge area of 660 dunams (165 acres) between the villages. A few armed settlers, unfriendly as expected, were wandering around there among the bulldozers.

It turned out that this was a typically successful trick by Plia Albeck when she headed the Civil Department of the State Prosecutor’s Office almost 40 years ago. In the ‘80s, after the High Court of Justice prohibited the expropriation of privately owned land for settlement construction, it dug deeper and distorted a clause in Ottoman law to let Palestinian land be declared “state land.”

Thus, in 1983, these 660 dunams of Ras Karkar were declared state land, like hundreds of thousands more dunams in the West Bank. State land, which means land for Jews only, is another way of thwarting Palestinian sovereignty.

Around these 660 dunams is private, cultivated land that even Albeck and her spiritual children in Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank couldn’t legitimize as land for Jews. In 2004, a piece of privately owned land was taken over to pave a military road. But to reach the “declared” land, which lay quietly for 35 years, the settlers, protected by their guns and armed soldiers, blazed a path through the cultivated land that Albeck and her heirs couldn’t steal via legalistically violent shtick.

Etkes wasn’t at Ras Karkar by himself. He met with two Palestinian activists against the settlements. One of them was Mohammed al-Khatib, a leading force in the fight against the separation barrier in Bil’in.

Khatib, it should be said, was much less disturbed than Etkes about the tire-changing affair. Etkes was irritated over the inherent coercion and the haughty behavior of two of the soldiers. Khatib, however, was amused by the scene in which armed soldiers needed the help of a Palestinian, right under a big red sign that warns of danger to Israelis who enter an area under the control of the Palestinian Authority.