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Riding a slow West Bank bus

NABLUS, West Bank

There are three main ways to get around the West Bank.

If you're a Jewish settler, you zip along a network of good, limited-access roads built especially for you and the other 250,000 settlers. If you're a VIP — a term broadly applied to most foreigners, including journalists — you travel along those same routes in chauffeured style with car and driver. And if you're a Palestinian you get in a vehicle and hope for the best.

Palestinians have long complained that Israel's checkpoints and road closures make it hard for them to go from place to place. Construction of the 254-mile Israeli security barrier has further balkanized the West Bank, Palestinians charge, reducing chances they will ever have a contiguous state of their own in this rocky, star-crossed land.

In more than a dozen trips to the West Bank since 1997, I had always gone with a driver and interpreter. Last month, I decided to travel alone, to see for myself if conditions are as onerous as Israel's critics say.

It turned out that the 2.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank have cobbled together a surprisingly efficient transportation system. But while often interesting, getting from here to there is not always fast or easy.

• • •

My journey started one Thursday morning in East Jerusalem, where I joined several people waiting for the No. 18 bus at the juncture of Nablus and Salah ad-Din roads. During the 1967 Mideast War, this area near the Old City was on the front line of fighting between Israeli and Jordanian soldiers. Today it is mix of Jewish and Arab — an Israeli district court is just down the street from dozens of Arab shops.

Within minutes, the No. 18 bus to Ramallah arrived. I deposited four shekels — about $1 — and took a seat.

"Who runs these buses?'' I asked the man next to me, a computer engineer who spoke English.

"A private company started this about four years ago,'' he said. "It's a lot better than it used to be; then there were only taxis.''

He and most of the other passengers were going to work in Ramallah, the largest city in the West Bank. Before the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in 2000, the morning commuter flow was in the opposite direction — thousands of Palestinians came from the West Bank each day to work construction or service jobs in Israel. But now it is nearly impossible for those with Palestinian identification to enter Jerusalem unless they have special permission, rarely granted except for medical emergencies.

My seatmate, though, was a Jerusalem native who had an Israeli ID. That enabled him to go to Ramallah to work and — more important — allowed him to return home each night.

We chatted as the bus left East Jerusalem and ran alongside Israel's security fence — in this area a solid, 25-foot-high high wall topped with barbed wire. For Israelis, the barrier has been a great success. Within a year after the first segment was erected in 2003, the number of attacks plunged from 73 to three. For Palestinians, it has been a nightmare, dividing families and neighborhoods and turning short trips into hourlong excursions.

At the huge Calandiya checkpoint, the Israeli-controlled entrance to Ramallah, we came to a sign that said Vehicle Inspection Point. But the bus rolled on; I asked my seatmate why we didn't have to stop.

"They don't care who's going in,'' he shrugged, referring to the Israeli soldiers nearby.

Ramallah is a crowded, noisy Arab city that lacks the sophistication of Beirut or the rich history of Cairo. It is controlled by the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party, which lost to the militant group Hamas in 2006 parliamentary elections but continues to be propped up by billions of dollars in aid from the United States and Europe. Even with all that money, times are hard: The owner of a jewelry store said more customers were coming in to sell gold than to buy it.

I didn't intend to stay long in Ramallah, but my eye caught an unexpected sign: Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association. Since Palestinians have one of the world's highest birth rates, I was intrigued, and went in.

Over tea, the director of the office, Dr. Suad Husseini, told me she was born in the Gaza Strip but had been back only once in the last 10 years. With Gaza now under Hamas control and the Israeli blockade, she couldn't even go to her mother's funeral in January.

Here in the West Bank, she said, Israeli security measures made life "very difficult, especially on women and children.''

According to a report she gave me from the International Planned Parenthood Federation, 34.5 percent of Palestinians living near Jerusalem have been separated from family members by the "wall,'' 65 percent have seen a drop in income since its construction and 38 percent said Israeli road closures prevented them from getting necessary health care. Another 22 percent said they had ended their education early because of the difficulties moving around.

"Within the steadily shrinking, fragmented space,'' the report said, "the local Palestinian population is experiencing an unraveling of economic and social networks.''

• • •

Getting to Ramallah had been smooth enough that I aimed for a bigger challenge: Nablus, the West Bank's second-largest city and a flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians during the second intifada. A photographer and I had tried to go there in 2002 after Israel invaded the West Bank in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed 30 civilians at a Passover dinner. But our driver considered the road to Nablus too risky. It ran near a Jewish settlement, and from their hillside perch, settlers hurled rocks at any vehicle with a Palestinian tag.

Now, seven years later, I made my way to a big parking garage near the center of Ramallah. It echoed with shouted destinations: Jenin! Tulkarum! Qalqilya!

One man directed me to a minibus headed for Nablus. Smaller and older than the No. 18 bus, this one had ripped vinyl seats held together with duct tape. The fare: 15 shekels.

It was a beautiful day, and the drive through the northern West Bank was a pleasant one. We drove along a ridge with spectacular views in all directions, then dipped into an emerald valley past olive groves and almond trees in pale pink bloom.

About 30 minutes into the trip, the driver said something in Arabic and the other six passengers immediately reached for their seat belts. We were approaching an Israeli checkpoint. The bus slowed but was waved on through, and we soon reached Nablus.

More precisely, we reached the outskirts of Nablus. Israel controls all entrances to the city, home to three refugee camps said to have been a center for rocket production during the second intifada. Things are quiet now, but with rare exceptions no vehicles from other parts of the West Bank are allowed into the city. You have to get out of the vehicle you came in, carry your belongings through a checkpoint, and catch another ride on the other side.

I asked one of my fellow passengers where I could get a taxi into town.

"Come with me,'' he said. He introduced himself as Rami Abdoo, a bodyguard for the Palestinian minister of social services. Home for the weekend, he offered to show me around the Old City of Nablus.

Founded by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago, Nablus remains a thriving commercial center known for its fine soaps, olive oil and furniture. For two hours we wandered through crowded Arab souks and streets so narrow I could touch the walls on both sides without fully extending my arms. Many buildings still showed scars of the 2002 Israeli incursion.

At 2:30 p.m., I took a taxi back to the checkpoint. Scores of men stood in one long line. "Here, many hours!'' one shouted in English.

The other, much shorter, line was primarily for women and children. "What are you doing in Nablus?'' a young Israeli soldier asked. He clearly hadn't seen many Americans in this part of the West Bank.

"Just wanted to visit,'' I said. He looked skeptical, but motioned me on. I got into a minibus, and began the trip back to Jerusalem.

The drive went smoothly until we came to an Israeli checkpoint near the Jewish settlement of Shiloh. We started up a small hill, then came to a dead stop.

Three roads converged at the checkpoint and within minutes, each had a line of vehicles as far as the eye could see. Twenty minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes. The man sitting next to me pulled out his cell phone and angrily shouted at someone on the other end; wherever he was going, he was going to be late.

Every now and then we inched forward a few yards. An hour and 20 minutes later we finally reached the top of the hill. There was no obvious reason for the delay — no accident, no breakdown, no road work. No one moved until an Israeli soldier, with a barely discernible shake of the head, signaled to one car at a time that it was okay to proceed.

It was nearly 5 p.m. by the time we got to Ramallah. What should have been a 40-minute drive had taken almost 2½ hours.

• • •

At Ramallah, I transferred to the No. 18 bus to Jerusalem. This time, we stopped at the Calandiya checkpoint, where Israel soldiers closely examined every passport, ID and permission slip. Then they started going through the bus itself.

"You may want to get off and get that one,'' a fellow passenger advised, nodding toward a bus already cleared to continue.

It was dark by the time the No. 18 turned onto Nablus Road. The driver let me off a block from my hotel.

Cost of buses and taxis in the West Bank: 38 shekels, or about $9.50.

Experience of traveling like a local: priceless.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

Riding a slow West Bank bus 03/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 6, 2009 5:26pm]
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