Making a living smuggling journalists

Opportunity: Palestinian taxi drivers feed their families by shuttling reporters - willing to pay handsomely - around Israeli army roadblocks and into closed military zones.

April 21, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RUMANA, West Bank - Bassam Abu Talep is a 42-year-old Palestinian taxi driver with six children to feed. During the past three weeks, he has earned his living shuttling journalists from one battle scene to the next, dodging Israeli tanks and soldiers.

"I know it's dangerous," Talep said last week during one such outing to Jenin. "But we locals know all the back roads. What else can I do? I have no other work. I'm ready to risk my life so that my family won't starve."

He is one of hundreds of cab drivers across the West Bank who have carved out an existence by figuring out innovative ways to get around Israeli army roadblocks, to deliver journalists into cities declared "closed military zones."

Reporters working here have long relied on "fixers" and translators in their work. But the rules have changed during this latest military action. Israel has decided to close off most combat areas to the press.

Israel's Government Press Office has made it clear that reporters who venture into those closed zones risk coming under fire.

In so doing, the army has created opportunities for Palestinian taxi drivers, unable to find much other work because most of the West Bank remains under curfew.

Taxi drivers can negotiate dirt paths through olive groves better than anyone. And they find that journalists are willing to pay handsomely.

Getting into Bethlehem, technically blockaded by Israeli troops, has become one of the easiest trips. Reporters drive up a hill to a neighboring village, park in a gravel lot and climb over a small dirt mound.

A group of taxis is usually waiting there to drive to the Beit Jala Hospital. It is a 10-minute trip that costs $50.

From the hospital, reporters gather in groups and carefully walk toward Manger Square, and the Church of the Nativity, where Israeli troops have besieged about 120 gunmen.

In Jenin and surrounding villages, where Talep works, getting around is more difficult.

The army and reporters play a cat-and-mouse game. Soldiers close roads discovered by journalists and set up traps to catch them as they walk through fields.

Reaching Jenin requires walking along a steep, rocky path into the West Bank. Taxis wait on the far side of a dirt mound. Getting into the camp is a relatively safe drive; getting out is far more dangerous.

Soldiers tightened their hold on the city and camp, moved tanks to the edge and shot at cars and people walking along rural roads between Jenin and its outlying villages.

Talep, using a cell phone to stay in contact with other drivers and villagers, kept track of where soldiers were firing and where army vehicles were.

In the West Bank village of Rumana, between Jenin and the Israeli village of Salem, villagers stopped Talep's van, packed with 11 reporters, repeatedly yelling the Arabic word for solider. Israeli border police were in Salem, hiding in a vacant house, looking for reporters.

Talep turned the cab around and drove to another village. The reporters climbed out and walked through fields, emerging on the other side of Salem and out sight from the police.

For his day's work, Talep earned $150.

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