Seeming enemies, similar anxieties

Israeli, Palestinian strive for normal lives

March 10, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHANY, West Bank - One is Palestinian, the other Israeli. The Palestinian is a taxi driver with children to feed, and the Israeli is a waiter with college to pay for. Each is trying to earn a living in a place where violence intrudes into everyone's life.

The taxi driver, Mahmoud Abu Hilal, 51, and the waiter, Shlomi Harel, 23, live only a few miles from each other - Hilal in Bethany at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and Harel in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

They are not fighters, terrorists, protesters, extremists or activists. They are wage earners, and the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict has transformed their jobs into harrowing experiences, leaving each man embittered, frightened and disillusioned.

Hilal worries about the Israeli soldiers and police blocking roads, literally ready to shoot at any instant. Last week, soldiers fired several shots over his taxi, to force him off a road barred to Palestinian vehicles.

"Of course, I'm scared when a soldier points his gun at me, when I'm just trying to do my job," Hilal said.

Harel works at a popular coffee shop, Caffit Cafe, in a well-to-do part of Jerusalem. On Thursday, he shoved a suspicious-looking man with a backpack out of the cafe, thwarting a bombing. Police found a large explosive in the backpack.

"I can understand that people don't want to come here," Harel said at the end of the week, still stunned by his experience. "We are all afraid. Anyone can come in here with a bomb and blow us all up.

"It's too bad. Jerusalem is such a beautiful city, and we can't enjoy it."

Hilal, the Palestinian, and Harel, the Israeli, share remarkably similar frustrations born out of circumstances unique to each side. In separate interviews, neither understood the other's problems, nor cared to. Each man is coping with restrictions imposed by factors beyond his control.

Soft-spoken, neatly dressed, Hilal has a wife and three children in college to support. He works two days a week, and a good day brings in about $20. That's two trips in his seven-passenger van.

On Friday, Hilal waited by a strip of rundown stores in Bethany, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The first passengers came to his yellow van at 8:30 a.m. Two hours later, most of the seats remained unfilled.

It doesn't pay for him to drive until the van is filled. So he yelled his destination, "Ramallah, Ramallah," as his first passengers waited in the van. Waiting has become part of everyday Palestinian life.

When he finally pulled away, there was no guarantee he would reach his destination. In normal times, the drive from Bethany to Ramallah takes no more than a half-hour.

But Hilal's vehicle has green license plates, announcing him as a Palestinian. Vehicles with green plates cannot cross into Israel, so he travels back roads peppered with Israeli army and police checkpoints. Any of them can order him to turn back.

"It changes hour by hour," Hilal said. "Or minute by minute. It depends on their mood."

So the drive can take two hours. But Ramallah will still be out of reach. All roads lead to an Israeli checkpoint outside the Qalandiya refugee camp, and a vehicle with green plates can't cross.

To bypass the blockade, Hilal's customers leave the van on a side road and trek over a rocky hill, at the risk of being shot by soldiers.

"The soldiers don't even give you a chance to tell them where you're going," Hilal said. "You could have one sick person in the car, but they don't want to listen."

Last week Israeli officials barred Palestinian vehicles from most West Bank roads, to make travel more difficult for potential terrorists. The drivers try anyway. They sometimes get through but more often do not. Customers are harder and harder to come by.

"The only Palestinians who move around in taxis are the ones who really need to get somewhere," Hilal said. "We used to be able to fill a van in 10 or 15 minutes, and there would still be people waiting to get in one. Now, we're lucky if we fill one car in a day.

"I feel despair," he said. "I have insurance bills. I have licenses to pay. I have all these expenses, and no money. For me, the conflict is about money. Last month, I had to sell my wife's gold to pay the bills. We just want to be left alone so we can go about our business."

Harel, the waiter, expresses similar thoughts. He started working at Caffit Cafe 18 months ago, just before the Palestinian uprising began. Every day, he goes to work worrying about the possibility of a bombing.

With a canopied balcony and flower pots filled with red roses, the cafe is part of a strip of restaurants and antique shops on Emek Refaim Street, in the German Colony neighborhood, south of Jerusalem's downtown. The sidewalks are usually packed with shoppers.

That is good for business, but the area is also an attractive target. On Thursday, Harel noticed a Palestinian man with a heavy-looking backpack draped over his shoulders. The man was sweating.

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