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Letter From Palestine: The Everyday Adventure of Commuting

I didn’t sleep very well, all night I heard the sound of tanks maneuvering through the streets of Jenin. Or were they the sounds of bulldozers? Why would a bulldozer be running at three in the morning? Getting up from the flat roof of an office building where I was camped for the night I look over the edge and down to the streets. Nothing.

Then come the sounds of distinct gunfire, the rapid crackle of fully automatic M-16s—a tell tale sign of the Israeli Defense Forces. They’ve got unlimited ammunition whereas Al Aqsa and other Palestinian resistance groups don’t, so they opt for semi-automatic bursts or single shots. It was a restless night and the next day I was to travel early.

The trip to Salfit would take me through the Askar checkpoint on the northern edge of Nablus. I try to be well rested for these journeys for a number of reasons: the Palestinian cabbies inevitably have multiple university degrees and conversing with them is always intellectually demanding; the other passengers who share such rides usually ask foreigners a million questions; and the landscape on this stretch of road is stunning. Also, at checkpoints its good to be perky in typical American fashion so the soldiers don’t hassle you too much.

"Why are you going to Nablus?"

"Like, I’m going shopping."

The ride is predictably bumpy, slow at times; there are ten of us including the driver in the stretch Mercedes cab. On the road just before Askar, I sense something is wrong. There aren’t many taxis running to and from the checkpoint. I think, "The bastards have closed it!"

Our cabbie stops to consult with another driver headed the opposite direction. Fadi, the man next to me, turns and confirms that the checkpoint is closed. We exit the car to pace back and forth smoking cigarettes. A 30-minute conversation follows. One need not understand Arabic to know that the men are debating our options. Try an alternate checkpoint? Go around Askar via other roads? Hike over the mountain?

Whatever the case, we will not turn back.

A plan is hatched: We enter a different cab and head west up a hill that overlooks the closed checkpoint and the Israeli soldiers controlling it. Asking villagers along the route, our driver searches for an open entrance to Palestine’s largest city. We turn off and drive through olive groves, around large dirt mounds that serve as roadblocks and past disruptive ditches dug by Israeli soldiers.

We finally arrive on a ridge below, which lay the outskirts of Nablus. The cab stops and we all get out except for the driver and one other passenger who has decided that sneaking into Nablus past militarized IDF checkpoints isn’t worth risking his life. It’s beginning to get very hot.

Nablus has a nickname, Jabal An-Naar or "mountain of fire" and as we begin our swift and rugged hike into town I regret smoking excessively for the past four weeks.

Three of the men, including Fadi, are in front of me. Behind me is Mohammed carrying both of his children and a large duffel bag on his back. His wife follows a short distance behind him. I offer to carry some of their things.

We make a descent from where the vehicle has dropped us off and reach a road. Everyone ahead of me pauses, looks carefully both ways, then darts across the road, up an incline and into the safety of some trees. I dash after my companions deducing that just around a bend in the road to the left is a checkpoint and almost certainly some trigger-happy young IDF soldiers who would not be pleased with our subversion of their blockade.

Hiking fast through some fields we then jump down from terraced walls, I take the children from the father as he jumps, followed by his wife, wearing a thob, the long dress customary for Muslim women.

As we reach a small village I see some figures approaching on a road in the village. "Jesh!" says the man ahead of me. That’s Arabic for soldiers. Like a synchronized unit we all pivot and head back the way we came – running. It is situations like this where Palestinians get shot in back. Once safely concealed in the olive groves, we slow down and jog parallel to the edge of the village. Retreating to the cover of the trees does not mean we are willing to relinquish our destination and turn back completely.

Further down the road from where we spotted the soldiers is a small house; we drop down from the groves making our way towards it. At the house the family inside gives us water and tells us that the soldiers are just around the corner. We quickly push off and continue along the edge of the village.

Now the land is dropping again down more ancient terraced hillsides. Handing the children back and forth we jog, jump and jog. Burrs and sticks cling to our clothes and the soft dust kicked up from our boots has left a heavy coating on our feet and pants. Occasionally, I lock eyes with Fadi. He smiles and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, "What else are we going to do, go back?" And indeed for Palestinians such travails are just the everyday hassle of commuting. To get around, you risk getting shot.

Our descent ends when we hit a field bordered by some barbed wire and a few stalks of corn. A herd of sheep and an old man are strolling by. Another guy in our group asks the farmer, "Jesh?" the old shepherd gives a reassuring gesture. All clear. We exhale a collective sigh of relief.

We pause a short distance away under some trees and relax. Mohammed runs to a nearby house to ask directions into Nablus. Emerging from the house, he shoulders his duffel bag, picks up his children and points us toward the city.

Walking along the dirt track into town, I start chatting with Shariff, one of this small band of passengers turned blockade-running pedestrians. He’s been to Brooklyn recently to visit his cousin who owns a gas station there. He asks me where I’m headed. I tell him I’m on my way to Salfit and need to get to Hawarah checkpoint on the southern edge of Nablus. Shariff has an auto parts store near Balata refugee camp, close to Hawarah. He offers me a ride to the checkpoint.

Before long, I’m sitting in the front seat of Shariff’s brand new white Mercedes Benz. Not many Palestinians have brand new cars, especially Mercedes. If they do they’re usually affiliated with the Yasser Arafat’s often-corrupt Palestinian Authority, but in Nablus the PA isn’t very popular and doesn’t have much of a presence. Likely, Shariff is affiliated with Hamas, Al Aqsa or another semi-clandestine Islamic organization.

At Hawarah, Shariff gives me his phone number and welcomes me to Palestine. Any problems, don’t hesitate to call. Turning toward Hawarah I take in the landscape. It’s not a beautiful view I’m looking for, but rather the best and safest route around this next checkpoint in case I’m denied entry.


Robert S. Eshelman

ROBERT S. ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2003

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