The Long and Winding (Dirt) Road
By Amira Hass

Amira Hass writes for the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz.  This article appeared in the Sunday, January 28, 2021 edition, and was sent to us by the author with permission to post it here.

The IDF's policy of sealing off towns and villages in the territories has paralyzed local life, and left the economy in ruins.  The Palestinians' struggle now focuses on devising ways to break the blockade that is strangling them.

The sign at Makhmas junction on Highway 60, the West Bank's north-south Jerusalem-Nablus artery, instructs motorists: Ramallah-Right, Jerusalem-Left.  Though the taxi's destination was Ramallah, a four-minute car ride away, the cab turned left.  The exhausted passengers knew that the alternate route would take more than 20 minutes longer, but no one questioned the driver's decision to take it.  They prepared themselves for a trip of poor roads, detours, roadblocks and barricades.Over the last two weeks, several promises were made that the IDF would dismantle the roadblocks and ease the army's encirclement of villages and cities.  This, in fact, took place in Bethlehem, but the rest of the West Bank's towns and hamlets are still cut off from the proper road system meant to connect them.  Residents are forced to travel circuitously, to walk, to change taxis, to climb paths along hills and between olive orchards, at times trying to retrace their steps due to a suddenly-instituted roadblock now holding back a kilometer's worth of cars, or because of a new closure that wasn't there even the night before.

Nablus-bound travelers, for example, must travel by a detour route that takes them nearly to the Jordan Valley.  This, so the highway flanked by the settlements of Psagot, Ofra, Eli, Tapuah, Itamar, and Elon Moreh will serve Israelis alone.

If only it were just time that was being wasted, so be it.  But part and parcel of the extended trips, explains H., a teacher of painting and drawing, is fear.  Fear of "the soldiers at the roadblocks, where you never know what caprice will motivate the troops.  Will they signal with a casual gesture of the hand that the road is open, or will they hold up a kilometer of cars for more than an hour, or will they amuse themselves by firing into the air, or into tires?

"And there is the fear of the Israel police, whose officers stop Palestinian cars as though their occupants are foreign invaders, who find a reason to fine the drivers, and of the Border Police, who behave with particular coarseness to shoppers at the grocery store on the main highway.

"And nothing compares to the fear of the settlers, who stand, armed, at the road junctions, sometimes shooting or hurling rocks, and all of it under army protection."  Therefore all those who reach their destination have earned the blessing "Thank God you arrived safely," which is heard these days more than ever.

Traveling from Ramallah to Nablus, the passengers cloak themselves in silence.  They sit tense in their seats, and whenever the cab nears a settlement or passes a military jeep, the tension mounts.  No one makes any comment to the driver as he takes the highway that leads to Ma'aleh Ephraim at 140 kph.  He wants to make up for lost time; but the heart flutters at every tortuous bend in the road.  When cellular phones ring and the taxi is still in mid-journey, the answers are laconic.  There are those who joke into the receiver, and to the caller waiting for the participants in a university meeting or for a construction engineer to arrive, they reply, "Another half-hour, if we get there at all."  Or: "Here we are, we're really close - it'll be another hour's drive."

When they enter Nablus or Ramallah, the passengers feel relieved.  A young passenger phones her father to inform him that she's already in Ramallah.  The construction engineer promises to be at the building site in five minutes.  Laying down new paths On the ground, what remains of this Intifada is its suppression.  During the first months, there was still a sense that multitudes were taking part in an uprising: Thousands marched to the roadblocks, hundreds dared to clash with the soldiers.  Meetings and rallies called for continuing the uprising and for developing it in forms of mass action.

"The people have made a decision," declared the participants in daily funerals, explaining: The decision is to continue until no trace of the Israeli occupation remains.  No settlements and no Israeli soldiers.

At this point, very little remains of all this, and all are groaning under the weight of Israeli countermeasures.  Encirclement—the surrounding and sealing off of Palestinian areas—is the most successful means of suppression, the most keenly felt, reaching every home and every individual, and achieving its goal: paralyzing normal life and ruining the economy.  The Intifada is therefore now, above all, a day-to-day struggle against suppression.  Every car trip is a minor uprising, a personal uprising that adds up, along with others, to a collective uprising.

N., for example, insists on traveling every day to his workplace in Nablus, even though the main roads to the city have been closed since the onset of the Intifada, and the trip now takes him three hours.  It cannot be, he explains, that his students must miss lessons due to the closure and the settlers.

Field workers of PARC, the Union of Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees, an organization founded in the 1980s, are also persevering in coming from cut-off villages like Beit Djan, near Nablus, and Farha, near Salfit, to the non-profit organization's offices in the cities of the West Bank.  They leave home at 6 A.M.—taking to the roads before settlers and soldiers begin preventing Palestinians from bypassing the roadblocks—and return at nightfall, to the great anxiety of their families.  But they are unwilling to give up their work, which is in itself a form of uprising.

At the beginning of the uprising, with the army imposing internal closure, organization officials immediately mobilized resources and workers in order to expand and repair agricultural roads, to straighten them, steamroll and reinforce them, and to define their shoulders with stone walls.  This also provided work for dozens of laborers whom the closure had rendered unemployed.  They work about two weeks, earning NIS 60 a day in order to assure their families the very minimum.  In this way, 15 kilometers of agricultural paths have been renovated in the Nablus area; at present, they are the sole transportation artery for dozens of villages.

The burden of paying the workers, amounting to about $3,000 per kilometer, is jointly borne by PARC and the village councils.

When the path is one that connects to a proper road, the council and the organization each pay half the cost.  The villages' share drops to 40 percent when the path connects two villages, and when the path passes near a settlement, they are asked to contribute only a quarter of its cost.

Sometimes, quarry owners donate stone and gravel, or sell them at a discount.  Sometimes, local councils increase their share of the payments, and the surplus in the organization's budget is transferred to a kilometer in another area.

Bakher Hamad, director of the Nablus office of PARC, concedes that there is apprehension that rehabilitating and widening agricultural paths will enshrine a situation in which only settlers and the army will travel on the convenient, high-speed paved roads, while Palestinians are forbidden access to them.

But there is no alternative, Hamad says, because people want to live, and if they close us off, we have to break the siege every way possible.

There are other forms of struggle against blockading of main roads.  In some villages and refugee camps, the residents play cat-and-mouse with the soldiers: They remove part of the earthen embankment that blocks a road, move concrete blocks aside, fill in the deep trench that IDF bulldozers dug.  Attempts to take advantage of the gaps in the blockade sometimes result in shootings by settlers, villagers say.  Among the settlements around which travel by Palestinians is especially dangerous are Halamish, Shiloh, Elon Moreh and Yitzhar.  Traffic jam on the path Hamad arrives from the Salfit area every day.  The trip, which takes about 20 minutes in more regular times, has turned into torture, now lasting an hour and a half.  The road from Hawara village to Nablus (about seven kilometers) is blockaded.  Travelers from southern and western parts of the West Bank drive through the lands of Bourin village.  The path is hilly, winding, full of potholes and small stones that jolt the cars creeping along, one after another, taking care not to scratch the vehicle coming at them on the opposite side of the path.  Ambulances traveling to the hospital in Nablus are also forced to plod along on this path, which at eight in the morning and four in the afternoon are the most congested in the entire Nablus district.

Even a donkey or two can be found climbing this winding path, and every donkey carries two child passengers, school packs on their backs, smiling a grin of victory at the cars whose forward progress is slower than the gait of their donkey.

No matter what the pupils think of school, from the moment the internal closure barred thousands of students and hundreds of teachers access to scheduled lessons, appearing in class also turned into an act of defiance.

Traveling on the paths is hard.  Hamad goes around with a hot water bottle that soothes the pain in his back.  One of the workers in the PARC office in Nablus miscarried last week, after three months of having to drive this path twice a day.  Standing beside two or three of the curves in the road, unemployed youths offer hot coffee and tea, for a half shekel a cup.

Twice, Hamad eluded injury by stones thrown by settlers at the taxi in which he was riding.  The driver and another passenger sustained eye injuries from shattered glass.  Dozens of cars go about the roads of the West Bank with shattered windows.  Their drivers have no money to pay for repairs, explains Samir Je'usi of the Ramallah Drivers Association.  He himself drives a car whose back window is adorned with a crack, as a result of a rock thrown by a settler.

Palestinian insurance companies refuse to cover the damage: This is a state of emergency, war, which is not included in the terms of the insurance policy.  If the Palestinian Authority so decided, we would pay, the insurers say.  But it has not yet decided, and the damage bound up with the struggle for independence is absorbed by the citizen, like all the other damage done by the closure and the siege and the unemployment.

In the Ramallah district, about 150 of 500 drivers of taxis—the principal form of public transportation—are currently unemployed.  The internal closure did serious damage to the taxi sector: by Je'usi's estimate, the number of passengers traveling to and from Ramallah dropped by about 60 percent.  In more normal times, every day about 30,000 people passed though Ramallah's central station, from which most of the taxi lines originate.  Today, the daily total is no more than 10,000.  After four in the afternoon, the station empties out of both taxis and riders.  In the past, taxi passengers lined up until 10 or even 11 P.M.  Now they hurry to make it home before nightfall.  "Every month is worse than the last, every day is like a trip in reverse," remarks Je'usi.

As the rides have gotten longer, they have also become more expensive.  Instead of NIS 9 to Nablus, each passenger now pays NIS 20.  Most people cannot afford the higher price, and decide against making the trip.  They travel only when they must, and when they do, they also take care of errands for others in their village or neighborhood.  The owners of a grocery store near the taxi route to Bir Zeit, in one of the streets that leads out of Manara Square, relates: "Once, when someone would come in—a driver or a passenger—to buy cigarettes, he would also buy chocolate for the kids and ask me to fix him a salami sandwich.  Today, he buys only cigarettes, then rushes to get out."

The trips are long not only because of the alternate routes, but because of surprise roadblocks.  "We wait at a roadblock, see the soldier smoking a cigarette at his leisure, not doing anything," one driver says.  "Ten minutes pass, another 10 minutes, and no one tells us what's happening.  Then suddenly the soldier lets five cars pass, without checking any of them, and then again delays the others."

There are soldiers with initiative, G. remarks.  He was made to wait at a roadblock at the exit to Burka village.  The soldier who made him wait, who spent long moments inspecting his identity card, scribbled a sentence in Hebrew on a page that he tore from his notebook: "G. is summoned to Captain Omer at such and such and hour on day X, in Camp Ofer" (between Givat Ze'ev and Beitounia).  G. guesses that the soldier was joking around with him, but in any case he became anxious: What if it was an actual order and something could happen to him if failed to appear?  Tear gas in the mosque Last week the soldiers weren't joking around when they imposed a curfew on Silwad village, east of Ramallah, for four days.  They fired on youths who tried to break the curfew, and sent tear gas into a mosque during Friday prayers.  Last Thursday, January 18, shots were fired at an Israeli bus driving to Ofra settlement.  A few hours later, the curfew was imposed.  Troops raided the village.  Prior to afternoon prayers on Friday, people were allowed to go to the mosque, and the Imam, one of the worshipers said, began a militant sermon that was broadcast by loudspeakers to the whole village.  Suddenly the mosque was filled with a suffocating gas.  The imam (prayer leader) became alarmed.  He asked to stop the sermon.  People screamed.  Their screams were broadcast throughout the village, amplified by the loudspeakers.  People—and in particular, women, who had stayed in their houses—immediately thought of the Ibrihim mosque in Hebron (The Cave of the Patriarchs) and the 1994 massacre (of Muslim worshipers by settler Baruch Goldstein).  Despite the curfew they ran out of their houses, toward the mosque.  The soldiers understood and held their fire.

Meanwhile, several worshipers who had served time in Israeli prisons for Fatah activity tried to calm the situation, asking the Imam to continue his sermon.  They were experienced in inhaling tear gas in confined spaces.  But for the younger children, it was a first experience of tear gas and curfews and gunshots.  "I had hoped in vain that my son would not go through what we went through," said one of the village's Fatah activists.

In nearby Ramallah, they were barely aware of the curfew, just as in Gaza people have ceased to follow the almost daily shellings suffered by residents of refugee camps in Khan Yunis and Rafah.  The extent to which the communities are cut off one from another, and the varying levels of severity in the IDF's means of suppression in each area, are causing an unraveling in the Palestinians' feeling of partnership in the struggle.  In any group of villages, there are always one or two situated farther away from the settlements in the area.  These villages suffer less from the siege that the IDF enforces, and which the settlers expand at their own initiative.  In other villages, besieged and sealed off, you can hear complaints that "the neighbors are living life as usual," as though the uprising and the suppression had passed them by.

Last Thursday morning, an IDF roadblock near Halamish settlement barred all villagers in the area, including those of Bani Zid, Kafr Ein, Deir Ghassana, Nabi Salah and Kafr ed-Dik, from driving toward Ramallah, the district center.  Teachers, nurses, doctors, officials in Palestinian Authority offices, dealers in produce and dairy products—all were forced to return the way they'd come.  Furious, they began throwing rocks at the soldiers.

On Wednesday a similar thing happened, and 10 people were injured from soldiers' fire, someone related.  "We are far from any central city, therefore no one takes an interest in us," complained Abd a-Salam, a resident of Beit Rima village.  "Not the Israelis, not the world, not the Palestinians.

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