July 28, 2012
We finally left Ramallah, later than planned. I was supposed to be back in Bethlehem at 4.30 for Zumba. (Yes, Zumba: but thatís another story!) We didnít leave until almost 3.45, so even with an empty road, no flying checkpoints, the "container", Wadi Nar and all other probable and improbable obstacles, weíd not be back in time.
On a Thursday afternoon, the road between Ramallah and Bethlehem is especially busy. Many PA workers from Bethlehem are rushing back for the weekend. We turned onto the main road out of town, it was chaotic. And there is only one road out of this town.
Traffic was slow, we finally passed the Kalandia checkpoint turning, but then the traffic came to an abrupt halt. Two stationary lines of vehicles were quickly overtaken by those not interested in waiting patiently. Queuing in Britain usually seems to make sense. Here, it does not. I persuaded M to join the impatient line driving on the wrong side of the road.
Within seconds we came to a halt again. So a fourth stream of vehicles, using the final lane available but again on the wrong side, began to file past us. Traffic coming the other way, which was sporadic, had to navigate the stony bank of the roadside to pass. Some of the nicer cars struggled, but no one seemed to be losing their temper over having their route blocked by oncoming traffic.
We were now in a massive queue, high rock slopes either side of us. Heat and fumes building up, creating toxic air. Windows up, or down? Even the AC didnít seem to be working. To the left of me, part-way up the rocky bank was a large sign with faces of some young children staring down at us. They were the children from Shuafat refugee camp, killed when their bus crashed and burst into flames. I felt the tears well-up again, their small innocent faces looking down at us. I remember the day the accident happened and crying at my desk in London as I read the news, feeling sick to the pit of my stomach.
By now people were streaming past on foot, in both directions. One old woman in traditional dress lumbered past us, pouring a bottle of water over her head and muttering to herself as she did so. We stopped passersby intermittently to try to find out what had happened, a game rather like Chinese whispers. Thereís been an accident, down past Hazma: thatís at least four miles from here! Itís a lorry; a van; three cars; four cars; the army is there; a suspected suicide bomber; and so the game continued.
In front of us was a Palestinian police car, a towel very carefully wrapped over its emergency lights. As the policeman was driving through area C, he had to obscure the trappings of his authority, hence the roof lights had to be concealed. While the lights were covered, the enormous words "POLICE" emblazoned on each side of the car were not.
It was comical, to a point, but the fact is that the Oslo Accords have not bestowed upon Palestinians any control over the West Bank and Gaza, but rather given even more control to Israel. And the notion of area A and B offering governance to the PA is also comic as nothing whatsoever (people, animals, goods and produce, vehicles) can enter areas A or B without having first to go through area C and therefore be subject to security checks and questions. (In fact, this isnít quite true as I have been traversing from Israel into the West Bank and back without being stopped by anyone, but this would not be possible for a Palestinian)
An army jeep managed to squeeze past. Then a border police jeep, which gave up and remained a few cars in front of us for the next half hour. Finally we began to creep forward, but then stopped again, for another long wait in the afternoon heat. Then another few feet. I looked up to my left to discover an Israeli bus full of soldiers, presumably being transferred from base to the various checkpoints around this area of the West Bank for duty. No one paid them any heed, nor did they of anyone else. We were all bored, hot, thirsty and resigned to the long wait ahead.
We started to move again and found the border police ahead directing traffic, stopping one way to allow the other through, then vice versa. At this point people were beginning to get a bit pushy and some managed to circumvent the official route. The police took no notice.
We had still not passed the accident but at least we were moving, albeit very, very slowly. Two teenage boys jogged past, rucksacks bouncing on their backs, red faces irritated, each one with a hand on his kippur to keep it in place. One kept shouting at the other. They still had quite a jog to the closest settlement, and I felt no sympathy for them whatsoever. They didnít have to be here, they couldíve been comfortably at home somewhere else: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Brooklyn Heights. The thousands of Palestinians stuck on this one road between Ramallah and Bethlehem had no choice but accept the situation and cope with it.
As we crawled up the hill there was a large car on the side of the road, its inhabitants had decided to stop on the hard shoulder to have some refreshments. It was a settler family and again no one took any notice of them, nor they of those around them. And what was the point of the wall again?
Finally we passed the scene of the accident and it turned out to have been an Israeli lorry that had overturned, hitting two cars. The Chinese whispers were almost right. We finally picked up speed and stopped to buy large supplies of water and ice creams, adding to the GDP figures to ensure that the West Bank is thriving economically.
We arrived back in Bethlehem around 7.30, almost four hours after weíd left Ramallah. In normal places weíd have been able to turn around and take another route. But there was no other route available to us. The only other road in the area was through Kalandia, to Jerusalem, then on to Bethlehem. This is a journey I can make, but not J or M as they do not have the "right" to go into Jerusalem. (In fact, last week J applied for a tisrehah and was refused on "security grounds".)
A relatively minor incident has such an impact on everyone here. We were lucky, we had hit the jam fairly early on. Behind us cars were stuck all the way back into Kalandia, the city of Ramallah and the surrounding suburbs. This is the normality of the abnormal life under Israeli control.