Helpless Israelis on a West Bank Road

My car has broken down from time to time over my decades in the territories, and no tractor driver has ever let me pay him for helping me out.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Road in the West Bank.
Road in the West Bank. Credit: Daniel Bar On
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The car jolted among the potholes on the road. It is a long dirt road, and one must be careful. To no avail: a hard edge in a small pothole struck the underside of the car. A little pop, and that was that. Burhan looked behind him and said he needed to stop. A long trail of oil drops stretched behind us. Another moment passed, and the engine gasped and died. We were on our way back from the tiny village of Husme in the Jordan Valley, whose homes Israel demolished last week. Burhan and Bassem Busharat, who live in the nearby village of Halat Makhoul, another community of shepherds which was demolished roughly six months ago, got out of the car and tried to patch the leak with bits of plastic they found among the sea of wheat sheaves around us, to no avail. The oil kept flowing. End of the world.

They telephoned the garage of the settlement of Bikot. The garage had no oil container. They telephoned a car mechanic from Al-Jiftliq; he did not have one either. End of the world. The sun was scorching, the east wind whipped our faces. Suddenly a tractor owned by one of the residents of now-demolished Husme came by. The driver towed our car to the main road and refused to take money. My car has broken down from time to time over my decades in the territories, and no tractor driver has ever let me pay him for helping me out.

Haaretz buys security-reinforced cars third- and fourth-hand, and they break down. It happens. A few months ago, we got stuck on the outskirts of Tul Karm, opposite the entrance to the Nur al-Shams refugee camp. That time, it was a leaking water pump. Within moments, a Palestinian driver stopped. Not two minutes later, half the camp surrounded us, offering advice. Israelis, brainwashed and struck with anxiety, consider Nur a-Shams a particularly dangerous and hostile place. The water pump arrived within half an hour. The Palestinian driver installed it and would not accept anything in return.

The writer Ilana Hammerman also got a flat tire in the heart of a village that has one of those terrifying red signs at the entrance that reads: “Entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against Israeli law.” Within minutes, village residents changed her tire and sent her on her way. Hammerman wrote about the incident in Haaretz in “Where the roads lead” in July 2013. Later, she and her fellow activists went out and covered those warning signs with the message: “Israelis, do not be afraid. Refuse to be enemies.”

Enemies or not, now we are stuck on Route 358, without oil and without an engine. “Dear customer, pursuant to our conversation, a tow truck will be sent to you. Please remove all valuables from your car. We are making every effort to shorten the wait.” Three hours. Cars belonging to settlers and army vehicles sped by, and nobody thought to stop. Suddenly, another Palestinian tractor stopped. It was carrying sheep. The driver’s sheep pens had been demolished as well. He asked: Need some water?

He came back about half an hour later, without the sheep but bringing a meal: cucumbers, tomatoes and radishes, all home-grown, with wonderful sheep cheese and fresh stone-oven-baked bread. “My wife made these for you,” he said shyly and went away. He did not know who we were, only that we were Israelis; he certainly thought that we were settlers from the Jordan Valley, almost the only ones who drive on that accursed road, along whose length Israel put up a dirt rampart to keep Palestinian farmers out and stifle their lives.

All’s well that ends well — the heat lessened a bit, the tow truck arrived. But we were left with our thoughts. Why do they always come to our rescue with such generosity without having any idea who we are, except that we are Israelis? Could this, heaven forbid, be kowtowing to the conqueror, or could it be natural good-heartedness? And how does that match up with the warnings and fears of them that Israelis are force-fed? My years in the territories have taught me that most ordinary Palestinians are people of good will who want to live in peace with the Israelis. But go tell that to an Israeli. To him it will sound off the wall, exactly as if he were being told that his towing company was “making every effort to shorten the wait.”

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