Thirty-year-old Ziad Fawzi has grown accustomed to moving between olive groves and fruit tree orchards, over hills and through abandoned quarries, to make his way home to his village Burqa from Nablus, where he works in an advertising office. Like hundreds of other workers, employees and students, Fawzi must take long circuitous dirt roads to circumvent the Israeli military checkpoint set up on the main paved road.
Over time, he has developed a sense of how to scout out alternative roads to take if the checkpoint is closed, or if an ambush of Israeli soldiers suddenly pops up from between the olive trees. Now his coworkers endearingly call him the “hawk of the back roads.” Even the French television station TV5 requested his services in filming a reportage on the area.
A difficult journey
When I met him, it was 8:30 in the morning. He had just arrived at his workplace on Al Adl Street in Nablus, sweat pouring down his face. “Today, the journey was harder than usual,” he told me. “The checkpoint was completely closed. About ten other people and I took a mountain road we call “the white mountain” and were met by an army jeep that stopped people from passing. They started shooting above our heads to warn us to return,” he explains.
The group then tried another path, Fawzi continues. “We went to an area called the “barriers” between Zawata village and the “white mountain”. There we found a group of soldiers hiding in the trees, threatening us with their weapons. We quickly moved away from them and went east. We walked four kilometers until we reached the city limits, where we hailed a cab. I finally reached my workplace after three and a half hours,” he concludes.
Two years ago, it took Ziad, a short, spectacled man from Burqa south of Nablus, only 15 minutes to reach his workplace.
“I used to leave home at eight in the morning and reach work at 8:15,” Ziad recalls. “Now, the Israeli checkpoints have made this short journey very, very long, as if the city was on another continent. Now I wake up at five in the morning and share a cab with five other colleagues from my village to the closest spot near the checkpoint, set up between Asseera Al Shamaliya and Nablus.”
Ziad, like tens of thousands of Palestinian workers, employees, students, women and children, cannot forsake his trips to Nablus. This is where local villagers work and attend university, or where they receive services from ministries and hospitals. However, these basic services have now become nearly impossible to receive. Over 160 Israeli military checkpoints block their path, set up across the occupied Palestinian territories under the pretext of combating “Palestinian terrorism.”
Putting food on the table
“Making a living for me and my family is a sacred duty, which I cannot shirk. My family must live in dignity,” says Ziad, who supports his wife and six-month-old daughter. “In these times, earning a shekel is better than nothing.”
Ziad works in the advertisement business by collecting bills from customers. He makes NIS 1,500 ($338) a month. This is something he must continue to do even if it means taking risks, he says, and these risks oftentimes result in trouble. Once, he tells, he and his companions, including workers and university students, fell prey to an Israeli army ambush hiding out in the olive groves. They were stopped, beaten, blindfolded and then abandoned.
Sometimes Ziad records these incidents in a little notebook. “Soldiers on patrol of the back roads detained me for 622 hours between April 2002 until May 2003,” he wrote. Now, he says, many of the officers and soldiers recognize him when they catch him trying to go around a checkpoint. But the worst incident this young man experienced took place last March 4.
Nightmare in the rain
“We were eight travelers going home to Burqa,” Ziad tells. “We were between Nablus and Jenin, in an area dense with villages. Then we heard that there had been an armed attack inside Israel. The soldiers became tense and they deployed between the olive groves. We had reached the village of Ajnisiniya, which is only two kilometers from my village.”
“Suddenly,” Ziad continues, “a group of soldiers came out of nowhere, stopped us and sent us back six kilometers on foot to where we had come from. It was pouring rain. One of the soldiers recognized me and held me apart from the group, taking me to a lemon grove. He then threatened me saying, ‘You are a terrorist; I will kill you.’ He took my ID card and blindfolded me with a piece of cloth. Then he left me. I didn’t even feel the cold because I was so scared. And even though it was raining and darkness had fallen, I felt as though the sweat was pouring down my forehead. I was expecting to be shot at any moment. I was really scared and became very sad when I remembered my wife and child.”
“The minutes passed so slowly,” Ziad recalls. “I thought I was going to die. Then the sounds of the soldiers disappeared and nothing had happened. I tore off the blindfold and began crawling on the rain-soaked ground yelling ‘officer’ and ‘soldier’ in Hebrew just to make sure they were not hiding behind a tree or something, and so that they would not say I was posing any kind of threat to them or that I was trying to escape.”
Ziad says he continued to crawl in the rain until he reached the closest house in Zawata where he was received warmly. The family, who had seen what had happened to him, gave him heavy blankets and a place to sleep for the night. The next morning, Ziad went back to work.
The ending to Ziad’s story was fortunately happy. Other endings, such as that of Zaher Sholi, 37, were not. He was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers just meters from a military checkpoint. Zaher was standing near his donkey, which he used as a means of transporting elderly travelers and heavy luggage or bags. His brother Asad, 39, who also works with a donkey transporting people and goods, was there when the Israeli soldiers shot him.
Asad says the soldier had, only moments before, sent a warning with a woman passing through the checkpoint to his brother, saying that if he did not leave on his donkey he would be shot. “The woman had just given my brother the warning and they were just leaving when the soldier took the fatal shot. He hit him in the neck,” recalls Asad.
“Why didn’t he give him a chance? Why?” asks Asad, tears streaming down his face. “Maybe they were teaching the 200 people – most of them university students going home to their families for the weekend – a lesson to go back from whence they came,” he speculates.
Human rights organizations calculate that 26 Palestinians have been killed at checkpoints over the last two years.
But the dangers involved with taking back roads and crossing checkpoints don’t deter people seeking to earn a living and support their families. Danger or not, these people simply adapt to the conditions as a matter of survival. Take, for example, the eight former farmers who now work at transporting goods on mules and donkeys from the village of Asseera Al Shamaliya. One farmer says that the group has come to detect the changing moods of the soldiers.
“We warn the passengers sometimes and sometimes we point them to alternative roads,” he says. “We are originally farmers but the siege and closures has make our work very confining, so we found that donkeys were a way to bring in a modest income. We cannot stop working,” he adds.
The same situation plagues 35-year-old Radi Hajja, the driver of a bright yellow cab. He refuses to give up trying to make a living, even though his car has been besieged six times and he has seen six passengers wounded by Israeli army bullets. “Our daily bread has become soaked in blood,” he says. “We have no other choice but to continue to take risks. We cannot just sit at home waiting for handouts.”
At the side of the Israeli military checkpoint on the main road to Burqa, one can see 13 yellow taxicabs being held in a lot inside the Shave Shomron settlement. “They seize the cars for 15 days and then return them to us in miserable condition,” Radi says distraughtly.
Just behind the checkpoint, the Homesh settlement is clearly visible, perched on a hill overlooking Burqa. However, the paved main street leading to the village is almost completely deserted, save for cars driven by Jewish settlers and the occasional United Nations vehicle with its blue and white insignia.
The paved roads have been left for the use of the settlers. The local Palestinian population and the original inhabitants of the region cannot travel in their own cars. Instead, they must make their way by foot over hills and mountains, ever seeking work to earn an income and their daily bread, even if it is soaked in blood.