To get from Tel Aviv to Ramallah, it’s necessary to get a cab driver who is a Palestinian with a Jerusalem ID, which enables him to go into Israel despite being a Palestinian; everyday Palestinian cab drivers within the West Bank would not be permitted, as Palestinians must go through certain processes in order to set foot in Israel. Those processes usually result in rejection, as can be attested to by the multitude of Palestinians who have not been able to see family and friends on the inside since the enforcement of stricter “security” laws. And if your family is in Gaza? Forget it.
Luckily, I knew a family who could get in touch with a cab company in Ramallah that serviced Tel Aviv by having drivers with the Israeli IDs, so I took that route. I arrived in Tel Aviv, was questioned multiple times about the purpose of my research visit to “Israel,” though it was explicitly stated that I would be in the West Bank, and then exited customs to meet the man who would drive me to my temporary home in Ramallah. His name was Omar.*
Conversation was forced at first, but we had about an hour-long ride together, so we forced it. We talked about the news, we talked about soccer/football, and we talked about the airport. Imbuing all of these conversations was the occupation, present even when not explicitly stated, existing slightly below the surface of every word, much in the way that it affects every single event that takes place within the Occupied Territories themselves.
He told me about his time as a cab driver, about how things got harder going in and out after the Second Intifada. The more we talked, the more animated he became. I asked him about difficulties given him by Israeli security, and he described his frustration with the implied criminality with which he was treated.
“After the Second Intifada, I would come through and they would search me two or even three times, sometimes only letting me travel a few feet before searching me again. As if I could have something on me that I didn’t have three steps ago. Finally, I say one day: ‘what do you think I am doing here? What are you searching for?’ And they say nothing. I am a cab driver, I come and I go. It’s how I make my living.” He told me it had gotten better as time passed, but things were still not easy.
As we rode along, Omar grew more comfortable. We talked about checkpoints, about the aggravation they present. But he noted that there was always a way around the checkpoint.
“It will take longer, but you can get where you want to go if you try hard enough. We are Palestinians,” he said with a smile. “They cannot stop us from living.”
He began to point things out to me, to teach me things. At one point we passed a small Palestinian village with an empty road leading out.
“Look, Zachary, do you see what this is?”
I saw. It was a checkpoint, manned by no one.
“It’s empty,” I said, pointing out what I thought to be an oddity, or perhaps a blessing.
He laughed. “It’s always empty. They no longer put anyone there.”
A checkpoint without personnel is not a checkpoint–it is a road block. Palestinians seeking to leave the village have to take roundabout roads and sometimes delay their travel times by hours simply to see family, get groceries, or in some cases go to school. Many Palestinians have been forced to move due to this intentional obstruction of movement. Once Palestinians leave the countryside for the cities (like Ramallah, which is part of area A), more room is cleared for settlers. When settlements expand, the amount of Palestinian-controlled area in the West Bank becomes smaller, which results in the bantustanization of Palestinian land as it currently exists.
And we kept driving. Road signs designating the end of the shared road popped up, loudly proclaiming “PALESTINIANS EXIT RIGHT; LAST EXIT FOR PALESTINIANS.” The denial of the right of Palestinians to use their own roads reminded me of something from a history book on the Jim Crow South, but it wasn’t in a textbook: It was in front of me, just beyond the window of the Skoda in which we rode. So were the advertisements beckoning to drivers to come buy an apartment in the new settlements being built on Palestinians (Jews only, of course; Palestinians need not inquire). So were the young soldiers brandishing large guns at the checkpoints.
When we approached our first checkpoint, Omar pulled to the side of the road. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but he continued to drive. I looked at him and began to ask a question, but he answered before I could.
“Speed bumps,” he said. “They put them here to make sure we slow down, but they’re bad for the car. I slow down without them. This car is my employment.”
So we went around them, the same way Palestinians in the West Bank have been going around the various speed bumps and obstacles placed in their paths by the state of Israel since 1967. A young Israeli soldier with a pockmarked face waved us through with one hand as he kept his other on his rifle.
Omar shook his head. “We just want to live.”
(Title image via).