Road Warriors

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Ra’af Daraghmeh climbed out of the ditch where his truck had buried its nose. Fine white clay covered the twenty-five-year-old from head to foot.

“My truck got stuck after the tire blew out. It was shot out by Israeli tank fire preventing us from going on,” Daraghmeh explained as he dusted the dirt from his face and hair.

Without warning, a tank and military jeep carrying four soldiers had rumbled onto the scene, Daraghmeh recounted. The soldiers disembarked, brandishing their guns, and chaos broke out. Drivers traversing the stretch of road abandoned their lorries of merchandise, fruit and flour and raced for cover behind the nearest tree or gully. But Daraghmeh was not able to escape the random gunfire and his truck lurched to a halt between a rock and a ditch.

The truck was carrying three tons of straw and had already made the difficult three and a half hour journey from Tubas to Nablus – a trip that once took just forty minutes. Daraghmeh found shelter between two boulders until the tank completed its “security operation” and departed. Timidly, the drivers ventured out to inspect the damage, and the lucky ones with usable tires went on their way.

But Daraghmeh’s truck was immovable, and it took a tire repairman, two new wheels, and the strength of five men to finally budge it from its hole. “I was forced to sell my load for the first price I was offered -half of what I should have gotten,” Daraghmeh says. “I spent two nights in the truck because I was afraid to leave it until an armored patrol fired into the air, warning me to get out of the area. I tried to convince them that I couldn’t leave my truck stuck like this and they replied with a shower of bullets. And so I left my truck and retraced my steps to Tubas.”

The next day, Daraghmeh tried to return to the area, but again the army headed him off. “The day after that, the road – if you can still call it that – was filled with ditches dug by the tanks.” Finally, twelve days later, Daraghmeh succeeded in pulling his vehicle out of the ditch. The cost of the required repairs was roughly equal to the value of the straw that the Palestinian had hauled.

Napoleonic measures

Incredibly, Daraghmeh’s travails are not atypical among the hundreds of Palestinian drivers trying to deliver goods on now nearly impassable West Bank roads. Because the Israeli army has blocked the modern network of highways connecting Nablus to other West Bank population centers, truck drivers are forced to use paths forged by animals. Nasir Yousef, president of the public transportation workers’ syndicate in the West Bank, says that the Israeli army is taking the advice of French general Napoleon: an invading army must control the roads.

Before the army clamped down on the traffic routes in late September 2000, the Nablus department of transportation had recorded nearly 14,000 licensed trucks and taxis in operation in the areas of Nablus and Salfit. “Only a few dozen of these are left now, and they work under dangerous circumstances,” says Yousef. “Taxis can be destroyed or their drivers wounded, or their vehicles may be severely damaged on the rough roads they are forced to travel.” With the exception of a few dozen trucks employed by international humanitarian organizations and carrying permits to cross Israeli checkpoints, most trucks and taxis are simply “out of order.”

The measures have decimated the transportation sector and cemented the fracturing of Palestinian communities. A report by the Ministry of Transportation indicates that from the start of the Intifada to September 28 this year, the industry had lost nearly $2 billion and declined to a mere ten percent of its previous capacity. Of the nearly 9,000 taxis in all of the West Bank, only forty percent are now running. While buses used to make a decent day’s work of $250, they now average $38 a working day.

Bullets for bread

Inside the cities, public taxi drivers aren’t faring much better. In Nablus, the twenty-four hour curfew has reigned for over 100 days on end. Even when the curfew is lifted, the city remains divided in half, the split enforced by a makeshift military checkpoint of a Merkava tank and two military jeeps, located just across from the destroyed Palestinian Authority headquarters. During the extended curfews, taxis play a deadly game of cat and mouse with Israeli military patrols that tour the streets and enforce the stillness.

Taxi drivers are always on the lookout for roaming tanks, because if caught unawares they can be lucky to escape with their hide. Unfortunate drivers or those who receive incorrect information can be chased down, sometimes with live gunfire. Occasionally these encounters turn tragic, as in the case of 12-year-old Ibrahim Al Madani, who was shot in the head by an army patrol chasing a taxi. The child was visiting his uncle’s home in the Askar Refugee Camp, and remains in a coma today.

“Under such circumstances drivers find themselves with only two choices,” says Yousef. “They can either stay in their homes under house arrest and without any freedom to move, work or earn money, or they can risk driving their cars through the city streets in the hopes that they come across passengers.”

To navigate the dangerous streets, the drivers in their distinctive yellow cars swap information on the movements of armored patrols. They also benefit from the boys found lingering at the entrances to streets and alleys.

A few days in early September, the Israeli army seemed to ease its grip on the movements of students and teachers on their way to school. The city exhaled slowly. But it wasn’t long before the armored patrols “changed their minds” and the strict curfew was reinstated. In just a few days, four children between the ages of 10 and 17 were killed in Nablus, Balata, and Al Ayn refugee camp. Another child lies in a coma at the local Rafidiya hospital.

Hosni Dweikat, 32, drives a shared taxi and was “caught” by a military patrol as he was “breaking” curfew orders. His punishment, meted out by the Israeli soldiers, was to have his keys confiscated and to sit for six hours in the sun.

“Aren’t you afraid that they will catch you?” I asked Dweikat when I encountered him on the very same street one day later. He didn’t hesitate. “What do you mean? I can’t die of worry at home. I am responsible for a family of five. Who will support them?”

A matter of life

Making these risky rounds with the taxi drivers, it is easy to see how local merchants have adjusted, too. New businesses have sprung up anywhere there is traffic and passersby. Cafes, sweet shops, mechanics, clothing stands and tiny movable groceries line any remaining thoroughfare, tempting the travelers. At the Ayn Al Faria junction, nearly all of the merchants once had full businesses in the curfewed city of Nablus. They, too, are trying to survive.

Fifty-three-year-old Atef Ashour is one of those who has given up. He sold his old truck for lack of work. “I have driven trucks for more than thirty years and I don’t remember ever going through circumstances like this in the past,” he says. “Truck drivers find work even in the worst of times. We transport food, vegetables, medicine and other things that people can’t go without.” Ashour worked all through the Intifada of the eighties, he says, but now he can’t afford to maintain his truck. “Trucks and taxis are built to move. Without work, they die.”

Several weeks ago, the Nablus curfew was lifted for five hours and truck driver Mahmoud Marzouq was asked to deliver shoes and baby towels to a Hebron merchant who was waiting at a nearby crossroads to pick up the merchandise. The Al Bazan intersection is some fifteen minutes from Nablus, but Marzouq and six other drivers were forced to take rough back roads that locals have dubbed “Tora Bora,” after the vast intimidating Afghani mountains pictured on television over the last year.

On this road, the trip to Al Bazan takes three hours. But, as luck would have it, not far from Beit Fureik, the six trucks were stopped in their tracks by an Israeli military patrol.

“They didn’t speak to us,” says Marzouq. “The soldiers just opened fire on my front tires. My colleague’s truck stopped when they shot out his back tire, and it flattened immediately. The goods he was carrying, pants and shirts, fell to the ground. The soldiers ordered us to remove our clothes to make sure that we weren’t wearing explosives belts. Then they confiscated our keys and identification cards and left.”

“We spent the night in our damaged trucks, and the next day began to look for a tire mechanic,” continued one of the six drivers. “Then the patrol came back and took us to the army camp in Hawareh where an officer questioned us, asking ‘Are you breaking the curfew?’ We immediately admitted to doing so, and then he asked us, ‘Why are you breaking the curfew when you know it will cost you dearly?'”

Marzouq picks up the story, saying, “We told him that we have gone without work and income for six months.” The officer let the truck drivers off with a warning. Next time, he said, each would be fined the equivalent of $1,000 and their vehicles impounded, not counting the $60 a day for storage every day the car remains in dock. Released for now, the group finally found mechanics in Beit Fureik who brought them new tires – at a fee of $250 a pair.

Would they do it again? “By god,” says Marzouq, “I don’t have even a sack of rice, and I can’t find anyone who will give me a loan. No one has surplus money to loan to those who need it.” Over the last three months, Marzuq the father of two, has only hauled four deliveries. “We are only living because we are not dead,” he says.

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