RAMALLAH, West Bank — Every conflict has its heroes. In Palestine they’re the taxi drivers.
After living for half a century under occupation, I can no longer endure the anxiety of what might appear on the road, whether it is angry drivers bottlenecked at the hundreds of barriers scattered through the West Bank or the pathetic boys who throw themselves at your car pretending to clean the windshield, asking for money. The plight of these boys invariably makes me hate myself, forcing me to confront the extent to which my society has failed. Then, of course, there is the indignity of having to wait on the whim of an Israeli teenage soldier to motion me to pass.
But perhaps the main reason I stopped driving out of Ramallah is that the roads Israel built to link the Jewish settlements with Israel have replaced the familiar old roads, making the whole network so confusing that I often get lost. And this is the greatest indignity of all, getting lost in your own country.
This is why I began asking Hani to drive me in his taxi. Patient, and well tempered, he also possesses the signal virtue of punctuality.
Not long ago, he drove me to the airport. I was going to London for a week, and my flight was at 5 in the afternoon. Twenty years ago, the drive took 50 minutes. Now, with so many checkpoints on the way, I left the house at noon, five hours before the flight.
I held my breath when we passed the first checkpoint. Hani does not lie, not even to soldiers. Though he lives in Jerusalem, is fluent in Hebrew and could easily pass for a Jew, he never says he lives in one of the settlements. Nor does he ever place a Hebrew newspaper on the dashboard or play Israeli music.
We needed to get to the highway at Dolev, a Jewish settlement. It’s less than six miles from Ramallah, but the road between them has long been closed to Palestinian traffic. Our detour took about 45 minutes, down a winding, single-lane road. When we reached the highway, we found that the Israeli Army had placed concrete barrier blocks there, preventing Palestinian access to this road as well.
We stood there, wondering what to do, while the settlers’ cars and buses zoomed by. Hani then picked up his mobile phone and called a colleague to find out how it was at the Qalandiya crossing leading to Jerusalem, at least an hour away.
“It’s very bad,” he was told. His friend said he had been held up for two hours. Hani was also informed that the checkpoint we were heading to, near the village of Ni’lin, was also closed to most Palestinians.
He turned to me with a look of desperation: “We have no choice but to try going through the Rantis checkpoint.”
The problem was that only Israeli citizens and Palestinians with entry permits were allowed through there. “If we’re stopped, I could get in trouble for attempting to smuggle you through, and you might end up being detained,” Hani said. “Or if they want to be kind, they might simply send us back. But then there would be no possibility that you’ll make it in time for your flight. What do you say? Shall we risk it?”
“Not much choice,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster. “Let’s risk it.” I said this knowing that I was taking not only an individual risk but also one on behalf of Hani.
Now we had to find a different access point to get on the main road. Another taxi drove by, saw that the road was closed and began turning around. Hani flashed his lights. The two drivers consulted, and Hani learned that the other driver knew another route. We proceeded to follow him for another 45 minutes, wandering from one Palestinian village to another, until we finally found an unpaved opening on the side of the road that had not been blocked by the Army.
How I wish I were fatalistic, someone who tells himself I did all I could and now will leave my destiny to fate. But I’m not like that. I start eating myself up, even blaming myself for the occupation. I tried to assure myself that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I didn’t get on the flight. I was only going to do a series of talks on human rights. Perhaps I should stay put in my house and give up traveling altogether. But so much had gone into the planning of this week, so many people were involved. Would they understand why I hadn’t made it? Would they appreciate the complications of our life under occupation?
The closer we got to the checkpoint, the more anxious I felt. Fretting, in turn, makes me look guilty, as though I were smuggling a bomb or going on a violent mission. Hani could see how tense I was. But he was too polite to tell me to take it easy. Instead, he tried to distract me by telling me one story after another. He was a good raconteur; still, most of the stories he told me were about checkpoints, a Palestinian vein of narrative that is almost inescapable.
“Imagine this,” he said. “Once, I was going to the Allenby Bridge. It was very hot and there was a long wait at a checkpoint. When my turn finally came, an Israeli soldier came over and asked whether I often came this way. I answered that I did.
“ ‘Will you be coming back this way?’ he asked.
“I said I would.
“ ‘Don’t stand in line. Come straight through, because I want to speak to you.’
“On the way back I didn’t jump the long queue as he had told me to do. When I got to where he was standing he asked me, ‘Why didn’t you do as I told you?’ I said I always wait in line. He then asked for my telephone number, saying he wanted to talk to me.”
Hani gave him a fake number, but he immediately called it and heard no ring. He demanded the right number, and Hani had no choice.
Later, “he called and proposed that I meet with him,” Hani said. “I knew what he wanted and told him I was not that sort of man. He said he could help me so I wouldn’t have to wait in line anymore but would be able to go straight through. In return, he wanted me to tell him who the troublemakers were in the Jerusalem neighborhood where I live, and he’d reward me. I told him I didn’t need his help and hung up.”
He sounded uncharacteristically bitter. “I’m so tired of Jerusalem. All its people are bad and don’t deserve this great city. The whole lot should all be evacuated and the city handed over to an international power. Then whoever wants to visit to pray there could use the houses of the former inhabitants, now turned into hotels.”
As we neared the checkpoint, I saw that the land on both sides of the road was cultivated with silver-leaved old olive trees. In the field beyond were spiny broom shrubs that shone in the sun like lanterns. How the settlers could argue that there was no one living in these lands before their arrival is bewildering.
Then Hani spoke again: “And yet some of these soldiers manning the checkpoints have a heart.” I remembered something he’d told me in the past, about a soldier who had noticed him coming to a checkpoint, getting checked, leaving and returning again and again in the same day. “He finally asked me whether I ever get tired of all this. I could tell that he genuinely felt for me.”
“And what did you say to him?” I’d asked.
“I didn’t want him to pity me, so I turned it back on him, saying that if I didn’t keep on going back and forth, he would be out of work.”
We were approaching the checkpoint. I put on my glasses to make sure I was reading the sign right. It said, “This crossing is reserved only for Israelis,” including, in fine print, those entitled under the Law of Return of 1950.
I looked at Hani. The sheen of perspiration was now visible on his brow, too. How had it come to this? What was the point of traveling all the way to London to tell others about injustice when I was so enmeshed in the logic of occupation that the possibility that I might be stopped at a checkpoint sent me into such panic? Was this what we had been reduced to?
We drove through the checkpoint in companionable silence. He endured and will endure as he has for the past 20 years. I must do the same. We cannot afford to abandon the struggle and must do what we can to end this occupation, before it succeeds in destroying us all.
(The New York Times)