Highway 443 Revisited

Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored

He was tryin’ to create a next world war

He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor

He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before

But yes I think it can be very easily done

We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun

And have it on Highway 61

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

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It is possible for a tourist to spend two weeks in Israel, seeing the sights and living the good life, without any realization of the problems people face here. It is also possible to encounter some of these problems in a single day, without meaning to. Evidently, all that is required for such an encounter is GPS.

Last Tuesday my wife and I said goodbye to Tel Aviv and made the trip southeast to Jerusalem, where we will spend the final week of our vacation in Israel. My younger brother is Israeli, and he volunteered to drive us from one place to the other. He arrived in Tel Aviv, and once we were safely packed into his minivan, he hit a few buttons on his smartphone. “Ever use Waze?” he asked me. “It will navigate us to Jerusalem, and even check how bad traffic is while it plots the route.” I was happy to use my brother’s iPhone as our guide. I figured that an iPhone app has to understand Israeli geography better than I do.

But if I had been driving, I wouldn’t have bothered with an app to find my way out of Tel Aviv. The main route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is the main highway in Israel, Route 1. I’d learned the way to Route 1 on my daily Tel Aviv morning walk to coffee: down the street from the hotel, make the first left, and follow the signs for Route 1. Easy. Only that’s not the way Waze wanted to go. It wanted us to make the first right, not the first left. By doing so, we ran into a demonstration by about 1,000 Eritrean refugees seeking asylum in Israel.

The story of the Eritreans in Tel Aviv is truly a tragic one. In Eritrea, serious human rights abuses, forced labor and indefinite military service prompt thousands to flee the country every year. As reported by the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch, these refugees are frequently kidnapped and tortured by Egyptian traffickers to extort ransom from the victims’ families (some of whom live in Israel). Egyptian authorities have done nothing to stop this practice, and Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases where Egyptian security officials facilitated trafficker abuses rather than arresting the traffickers.

Much of the trafficking and torture of Eritreans take place in Egypt’s Sinai desert, just south of Israel. Until 2012, Israel was a popular destination for Eritreans, who paid smugglers to take them to Israel through the Sinai. But by 2012, Israel had completed much of a 240 kilometer long fence along its border with Egypt, slowing or stopping the unauthorized flow of Eritreans from its south. Still, it is estimated that there are more than 30,000 Eritreans currently in Israel. Israel grants Eritreans collective protection, but does not recognize them as “refugees.” According to some reports, the Israeli government is “doing their best” to encourage these refugees to leave the country, establishing a detention center for Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, and even offering several thousand dollars to any refugee who agrees to leave.

As an American, I am in no position to lecture other countries on how to conduct immigration policy. But it is sad to me to see the Jewish State treat resident refugees in blatant disregard for what the Bible teaches about the stranger in our midst. We are commanded to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, more than 3,000 years ago. I do not understand how any Jew can ignore the plight of those who were slaves in Egypt just a couple of years ago.

The Eritreans we saw in Tel Aviv protested noisily, but peacefully. They did not delay our journey to Jerusalem. Waze was eventually able to get us going in the right direction on Israeli Highway 1, a modern multi-lane road where all signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English. This is pretty much the rule for all street signs in Israel, and confusion reigns only because there’s no standard for how the English will be rendered on these signs. For example, tourists in Jerusalem may see “King David Street” on Google Maps, but see the street name shown on street signs in English as “David Hamelech” — “Hamelech” meaning “the King” in Hebrew. As an American Jew with a rough knowledge of basic Hebrew, “David Hamelech” seems perfectly natural to me. David was a Hebrew king. It’s when “King George” is rendered “George Hamelech” that I am thrown off.

Highway 1 winds its way past Ben Gurion International Airport and across the plain on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, into the hills to the east where Jerusalem is located. As we approached the hills, my brother’s Waze app spoke up. “At the next exit, bear right,” it told us. Bear right? We were not yet halfway to Jerusalem. “There must be traffic ahead,” my brother figured, and after a moment of indecision he bore right, along with a good number of other cars. There was no reason for us to question the wisdom of Waze. We did not realize that Waze was guiding us onto Israeli Highway 443, a route that runs through the Palestinian West Bank.

220px-BarbedWireFence1In Israel, even a highway can have a complex history. Highway 443 runs just north of Highway 1, and passes through West Bank territory that was part of Jordan when the State of Israel was founded in 1948. The West Bank was captured by the Israeli army during the Six Day War in 1967, after which many Palestinians sought work in Israel proper. The old road system in the West Bank was inadequate to meet the new flow of traffic, so to help meet this demand, the Israelis widened a stretch of old West Bank road that had served Palestinian villages southwest of Ramallah. This newly paved road became part of Highway 443.

Israel banned Palestinian use of Highway 443 beginning in 2002, following incidents where Israelis traveling this road were killed by Palestinian gunfire. At various times, this ban has been enforced by army patrols, iron gates, concrete blocks and checkpoints. In 2009 the Israeli High Court ordered that the army lift the ban on Palestinian use of Highway 443. But Palestinian access to this road remains extremely limited, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Freedom of movement is a critical human right — without it, there is no effective access from home to farm, or from farm to city, or to schools and hospitals.

Our first indication that Highway 443 was not a normal highway was a glimpse of a checkpoint on the other side of the road — an innocuous structure that looked more like a toll booth than a military facility. But we then noticed walls on each side of the highway. Some of these walls looked like the noise barriers you might see on an American freeway. The walls were followed by long stretches of barbed wire, and bright yellow signs warning Israeli traffic not to exit the highway. Clearly, we were no longer traveling on a normal stretch of road.

The oddest thing about Highway 443 is how casually we entered it. Waze told us to go there, and there we went. There were no caution signs, no visibly bright line in the sand where the Palestinian territory begins. For those who have never been to Israel, it’s nearly impossible to describe the geography here, how small this place is (roughly the size of the State of New Jersey), and how things we think of as side-by-side are really on top of each other here. The verticality of borders in Israel is well-illustrated in Jerusalem’s Old City, where building takes place on top of rock laid successively by Moslem, Crusader, Byzantine, Roman and ancient Jewish rulers of this land. Whose land is the Old City? It depends on how far down you want to dig.

The geography here is not laid out neatly, the way (say) North Dakota lies neatly north of South Dakota. The “West” in “West Bank” refers to how the West Bank lies west of the Jordan River. In a general sense the West Bank lies east of Israel, but what surprises is how far the West Bank stretches west, at some points as far west as nine miles from the Mediterranean coast. In theory, one could select a point on the Mediterranean and walk across Israel in the space of a morning. The corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is one of Israel’s wider stretches west to east, but these two cities are only about 40 miles apart, about the same distance that separates San Francisco from San Jose. The drive between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem took us less than an hour. It is easier to cross Israel west to east along this corridor than it is for me to drive west to east through the City of Los Angeles.

Our venture into the West Bank ended at the Israeli checkpoint at the east end of the road, where an Israeli soldier impatiently waved us through without questions. The agricultural inspectors at the California border are more inquisitive than this. But of course, my brother’s car has an Israeli license plate. If he drove a Palestinian car, with a Palestinian license plate, our passage through the checkpoint would not have gone so easily.

I write this post from the heart of Jerusalem. The problems of Palestinians and Eritreans seem far away. But when you’re in Israel, any feeling that problems are far away is an illusion. The geography of this land offers no safe harbor.