Just a Normal Drive…

July 8, 2009


One day, a Palestinian friend of mine asked me and my roommate if we wanted to go to Bethlehem with him and another friend.  It was around 8 PM when we left, so the sun was already setting and it was getting dark.

Because my friend didn’t have his driving license, he didn’t want to drive to Bethlehem from Ramallah (about an hour drive). There would be Israeli checkpoints as well as Palestinian police on the road and he didn’t want to take any chances.  If the Israeli police or military caught him driving without the license, they would ‘detain’ him and return him after a few hours or a few days with a “physical warning”.

So I volunteered to drive, I hadn’t gotten the chance to drive very much since I got to Palestine so I was excited about it.  But I soon realized that this would not be a relaxing, fun drive like the drive to Seattle back home.

As we left Ramallah, we drove by Qalandia checkpoint—the main checkpoint for getting out of the West Bank and into Jerusalem.  Neither of my friends have the coveted “blue” ID so that checkpoint is irrelevant to them.

**The blue ID allows Palestinians to leave the West Bank—compared to the green ID which means that person is not allowed to exit the West Bank without applying –to Israel- for a visa…which is a long, painful process that almost always ends with an arbitrary or vindictive “NO”**

Because of this, we drove right past Qalandia checkpoint and all of the traffic that piles up behind it trying to get into Jerusalem.  After that, we were on the road to Bethlehem.

By this time it was already dark.  I was still getting used to my friend’s car because he has modified the engine for speed tests/drifting contests.  So even the slightest pressure on the gas pedal sent the car flying…

As I was trying to figure that out, we started down a highway that goes through some hills.  There are no street lights on the highway, no painted lines of any kind, no shoulder, no speed limits, and no rules.

But there are potholes.  Lots of potholes.

I had noticed before when I was driving with friends around the West Bank that they are constantly maneuvering the car to dodge speed bumps (which are about every hundred meters on the roads in Palestine) or holes in the roads.

Most of my guy friends are in love with their cars and seem to actually feel pain when they drive over a hole or a speed bump to fast.  So I was trying to be careful and dodge all obstacles.

Unfortunately, the road was dark and I hadn’t memorized all of the potholes like most Palestinians have.  So I drove over a couple before finally getting the hang of zigzagging back and forth across the highway to miss them.

Just when I was getting semi-comfortable with driving on Palestinian roads, my friend told me to slow down because the first checkpoint was coming up.

I had completely forgotten about the checkpoints!  I was petrified.  I had no idea about the protocol for approaching a checkpoint in a car, where I was supposed to stop, how fast to drive towards the soldiers, which lane to go in!!!??

Now you might be thinking, that’s not that big of a deal.  The Israeli military is a civilized military, they wouldn’t shoot at you if you drove into the wrong lane or approached them too fast…

Evidence to the contrary.  I read the news every morning, and I have seen MANY stories of people getting shot and killed at checkpoints.  The IDF has some typical excuses for killing those people: “They reached for a weapon” or “They tried to grab a soldier’s weapon”. 

Most of the families of the victims argued vehemently against these stories, saying that their child, wife, brother, sister was just a normal, everyday person—in school, had a good job, not involved in resistance or politics.  Some of the victims have been really young girls who the IDF said pulled out a weapon and tried to shoot up a checkpoint.  Their families said it was not even possible that they could get a gun, let alone want to shoot Israeli soldiers.

So, with that in mind, I approached the first checkpoint.  There are bumps on the road and some concrete blocks about 50 meters before the little stand where the soldiers are waiting.  So I pulled up very slowly, asking my friend where I was supposed to stop, what to do next, etc…

As I approached the concrete blocks he suddenly shouted “Stop! Stop here!”  So I stopped.  Then what?

We waited there for a couple minutes.  Then the soldiers, looking bored, made a  lazy, confusing gesture with their hands which could mean stay there, drive through, or drive to me and stop.  So I waited a couple more seconds to make sure he didn’t mean stay there.

Then he started gesturing faster and angrier.  So I drove up to him and stopped.  Then he kept waving, and I understood that he was waving us through the checkpoint and didn’t even want to check our IDs.  So I cautiously continued through the checkpoint and back out on to the road.

After this, my stress level was sky high.

At this point on the journey, we drive past a big settlement called Maále Adumim.  There is a confusing (to me) roundabout with three different exits.  One goes to into the settlement, one goes to another big checkpoint on the way into Jerusalem, and the third is the road continuing to Bethlehem.

 My friend didn’t realize I was confused so he didn’t give me directions.  I headed off towards Jerusalem.  He was shouting STOP! So I had to quickly make a u-turn before the checkpoint without attracting too much attention from the soldiers. 

Back to the roundabout, this time I almost turned into the settlement road—a “Jewish-Only” road—which was lit and did not have potholes or speed bumps.  But luckily my friend told me in time and we didn’t get on that road.  There is a lot of security at the settlements and it would have been very bad if we had driven towards it. 

As I turned onto the correct road, finally, settler cars were driving past us.  It’s a strange junction in front of the settlement where Palestinian roads are parallel to Jewish roads.   As cars drive next to each other, I noticed that people are very curious about each other.  Everyone is staring out the window trying to see the “other”.

Continuing on down the road, there is another, more difficult checkpoint.  The first checkpoint is empty at night most of the time, and they aren’t very strict about checking the cars or IDs.  But the second checkpoint is much stricter because it’s near the settlements.

As I approached the second checkpoint, I was still very nervous despite my test run on the easy checkpoint.  This time, there was a line of cars because the soldiers were stopping everyone. 

hen it was my turn to go to the stand with the soldiers, I pulled up very slowly and turned on the dome light in the car so there would be no suspicion or confusion that would lead to the soldiers shoot at us. Ha.

The came to the window, holding their M-16s as always…

 **IDF soldiers get a jail sentence of 5 years if they lose their gun, so many take it with them everywhere, including the beach—I have seen many soldiers on the beach  in Tel Aviv in their swim trunks with their gun hanging on their backs**

When I got to the stand, they asked to see all of our IDs.  They took my friends’ green IDs and checked them meticulously, and entered them into their computer system to make sure they were not false IDs.  When they saw my American passport and my roommate’s Swiss passport, they looked at us suspiciously, then loosened up a little bit and let us go. 

I was just happy to get away from the soldiers, so I started to drive off kind of fast.  Then my friend said “slow down! There are spikes on the road.”  The military put those spikes on the road so cars can’t drive through the wrong lane of the checkpoint without blowing out all of their tires. 

I put the breaks on but thought I had just ruined his car.  Luckily everything was fine and we kept driving.

At this point, it’s not the potholes, speed bumps, or checkpoints you have to worry about.  It’s the road itself.  This section of the highway has dangerous curves, as it is going up and down steep mountains.  It also has absolutely no light, and the headlights barely show the road.

So I was driving carefully, trying not to crash into cars coming the opposite way around dark corners.  Finally, we made it through the mountains and were getting close to the final checkpoint before Bethlehem.

As I approached the checkpoint, we noticed that there was a bonfire going on in front of the checkpoint, off the road near the place where you stop the car before going to the soldiers.  We were looking to see who was at the bonfire, and it turned out that it was all of the soldiers who were supposed to be manning the checkpoint!

They were having a little party.  I was confused, I didn’t know what to do, what they wanted me to do.  To drive, or stop.  So, because I didn’t want to become another news story, I stopped.

We rolled down the window and tried to ask the soldiers what we should do, if they wanted to check us or not. 

Most of them just ignored us and would not respond.  They were too preoccupied with their bonfire party.  I didn’t want to drive through without knowing for sure because it’s not worth it, they have guns and they are not afraid to use them.

So we asked again, and one soldier came at us waving his arms and yelling at us in Hebrew angrily.  None of us speak Hebrew…so we kept looking at him, waiting for some kind of a signal that we could drive through the checkpoint.

Then he came closer screaming at us in Hebrew and waving his arms and pointing down the road.  He was looking at us like we were Hitler or something.  So, we took that as a sign that he wanted us to just go.  So we did.

Feeling very stressed and like a bug the soldiers wish they could just step on and smear into the ground until there was no evidence it ever existed…I continued driving down the road to Bethlehem. 

It wasn’t long until we got to the entrance to the city, and we thought we were home free.  Then we saw another checkpoint.  My friend had no idea there was another checkpoint, and was confused until we saw a huge poster with the Pope on it.

We remembered the Pope was coming in the next couple days and that’s why there was an extra checkpoint.  It turned out that it was Palestinian checkpoint. 

There was no confusing protocol this time, they just have their jeeps on the side of the road and the soldiers walk out in front of you on the road to get you to stop.  As I rolled down my window, my friend called the soldier by name and asked him how he was. 

The West Bank is fairly small, and everyone knows everyone.  So it turns out my friend went to school with the soldier and after they had caught up on each other’s news, we were waved through to the city.

We made it!  But I will never make that drive again…


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