||Issue No. 138||31 May 2002|
Interview: The Star Chamber
Politics: The Odd Couple
Media: Audiences Before Politics
International: The Off-Side Rule
Economics: The Fake Persuaders
History: Terror Tactics
Poetry: Food, Modified Food
Review: Spiderman Spins Out the US
Satire: England's World Cup Disaster: Star Hooligan Breaks Foot
The Locker Room
Week in Review
In Defence of Latham
Swans A Pathetic Con-Job
About Last Night
We were late. Palestinian hospitality had prevailed at the village of Salfeet and we had stayed for dinner. Now it was dark and we had an hour's drive on an Israeli only road back to Ramallah and our hotel.
There were five Aussies in our stretch taxi and two Palestinians, our driver and our guide. The Palestinians both tensed up as we approached the Israeli Army checkpoint. Our guide had spent 13 years in an Israeli prison for political activities. Our cabbie had also done time.
An armoured personnel carrier (APC) straddled the Israeli road we wanted to turn on to. As we slowed about a dozen Israeli soldiers approached the car. They were all young men, many bespecled but all in combat gear, helmets, automatic rifles, flak jackets. The heavy machine gun atop the APC was trained on us.
We were all ordered out of the car.
I confess we all babbled "we are Australians" and proffered passports in a somewhat undignified way. Some of the soldiers began to engage with us in a friendly enough way, saying they thought Australia was "very beautiful" and expressing a desire to visit.
Other soldiers surrounded our two Palestinian hosts though, demanding their ID cards and very quietly but obviously questioning them. The menace in their voices was unmistakable. Our guide quietly drifted off into the darkness after (presumably) satisfying the soldiers, with a very sotto voce "goodbye" to us. No handshakes or fond farewells.
The soldiers told us that we could not drive on the Israeli only road. We had to catch a bus "to Jerusalem". I was not going to correct them and say we were heading for Ramallah, capital of occupied Palestine!
We had to go back. Driving away we debated what to do. Our driver claimed to know a back way to Ramallah. One that would get us there around 2AM. We set off.
Ten minutes later we came across another checkpoint.
The soldiers there were much less pleasant. It was clear they thought we were "collaborating" with the Palestinians. Our driver was clearly terrified.
We negotiated a way through and drove half a kilometer up the road. There we stopped and debated what to do. Local villages informed our driver there were yet more soldiers ahead. As the soldiers were clearly getting more jumpy as the evening got later we decided to turn around again and head back to Salfeet for the night.
But back at the second checkpoint we had negotiated the Israelis were gone. They had put a huge steel mesh gate across the road. We were trapped.
"This is how they imprison our communities after dark" said our driver. As if to illustrate his point, at that moment an ambulance, lights flashing, approached. It turned around upon seeing the gate and sped away. For hours afterwards we saw that same ambulances lights in the darkness, searching for a route through the checkpoints, barricades and gates to the local hospital.
So we had no choice. We had to try for Ramallah through the back roads. A journey that would take under an hour on the Israeli road would now take six.
A half an hour in to the journey we paused to check directions at a tiny village. The locals told us there was yet another Israeli checkpoint just ahead and that they had shot at a truck a few minutes ago when it approached them. We took a detour around the soldiers, driving literally through the middle of olive groves.
From there the road climbed up into some mountains. Progress slowed as we had to carefully maneuver over earthen mounds placed across the road by Israeli bulldozers every kilometer or so.
"Why do they do this?" I asked our driver.
"To make it hard for us" he replied.
We could see highly illuminated Israeli settlements on nearby hilltops. We grew frightened. The settlers had a nasty habit of shooting at random from the settlements (to be fair the Palestinians also had a nasty habit of shooting into settlements). We made an easy target with our headlights on as we crawled across the exposed ridge. In the distance flares were being fired into the night. What did this mean?
We dropped down into the Palestinian village of Arquaba. Our driver stopped. Flat tire. He tried to pump it up as we chatted to locals. Again there were soldiers up ahead. It was close to midnight and we had been the only vehicle moving for quite some time.
The locals told us how late that afternoon Israelis had come to the village in armoured jeeps and tear gassed the village boys playing soccer. Then an old man shuffled up. "Shalom" he said and offered his hand.
Unbelievable! Earlier the Israeli's were tear gassing his kids playing soccer and now, assuming I am an Israeli he offers me his hand and says "peace".
The tire is refusing to inflate. We can't go anywhere now. A local man comes up. He offers for us to stay at his place. We accept. Mattresses are solicited from neighbors. We sit in the living room watching Yemeni TV and drinking Arabic coffee. Around midnight we hear gunshots, but here we are safe.
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