February 16, 2001
All of the traffic was turning off of the main road. Our taxi followed suit, and we headed with the rest of Ramallah's rush hour travellers through a residential neighborhood and its narrow dirt lanes. People got out of their cars to help each other, particularly when an eighteen wheeler attempted to make its way through, squeezing between houses on one side and oncoming traffic on the other. Yesterday's mud had dried, making this route possible. But when our lane didn't move for twenty minutes, the air filled with impatience. Horns blared. Everyone in our taxi (including the driver) ignored the conspicuous "No Smoking" signs, hoping a little nicotine would relieve the stress. It didn't. One hour later, feeling angry and claustrophobic, we could see our destination. We re-entered the main road again, one hundred yards south of where we had left it.
Why the pointless detour? To skirt the Israeli blockade of the road. The soldiers are aware of what is happening - that we are all driving around the checkpoint and re-entering the road. These unofficial detours riddle the land throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Soldiers usually do nothing to stop it, and some even tell drivers what the alternate routes are. The reason given is "security." But no potential threats are eliminated by this measure - for the most part, cars like ours experience big delays but still travel on the same roads they would anyway. The purpose, it seems, is to add to an already arduous commute, and to remind the people here who is in charge. The only thing we can do is swallow it, as we swallow the dust and car exhaust.
But how much of this daily humiliation can people swallow? Imagine that today, soldiers refused to let you drive to work, forcing you to take a long senseless detour to get there. And imagine that, once you got there, you had to face a business on the verge of bankruptcy. You couldn't get your latest shipment delivered because of security delays - but in fact, that problem is almost moot because your customers (many of whom cannot get to their jobs) cannot afford to do business with you. Imagine that, as you left work today and walked to your car, you were stopped and roughly asked for your papers, required to prove your right to exist to a rifle-toting soldier half your age. Imagine he decided today to check up on you, making you stand and wait for twenty minutes as he radioed his superior and passers-by stared. When you finally get home, you call your parents to be sure they are OK. They are under curfew and not allowed to leave home for days at a time, and you cannot visit them because their town is sealed off. Then, imagine that you face another restless night, as you and your children try to sleep amid the relentless sound of gun and tank fire. You have sandbagged your windows, but tonight perhaps you will again find yourself huddling with the kids under the dining room table. And imagine that you get to wake up the next morning - if you slept at all - and do it all over again.
For hundreds of thousands of people, this is not an exercise of imagination, but a daily reality. In America, the talk is of "road rage", the boiling over of the pressures, irritations, and alienation of modern living. Here, the daily humiliation, frustration, and hopelessness of the occupation build up and often have similarly violent and tragic results. We are constantly amazed that severe outbursts are not more common. No one here is surprised that such things are happening with increased frequency - the violence and humiliation of the past will be vented one way or another, and the claustrophobia of life here tends to make the end result that much more explosive. Even the United States has urged the Israelis to ease the strictures - like these road blocks - fearing that continuing them will lead the road to peace into a dead-end. The recent increase in attacks may be showing that it is too late, as hope fades into the recesses of memory.
It is this lack of hope that drives desperation. But we must hope. In these days, though it is difficult work, we must remind ourselves of the presence and abundance of grace - grace that, these days, must be a constant companion. And it is a well-traveled grace. It was there on the road to Emmaus, as two disciples recounting the horror of the previous days were encountered by the miracle of the risen Christ. It intervened when violence laid siege to life on the road to Jericho. It even appeared on Saul's road to Damascus, opening his eyes to his own sin and guilt.
As we arrived safely to our destination that night, we gave thanks for the grace that was there on the road from Ramallah.
Elizabeth and Marthame Sanders
PS Last month we had a couple of pieces published regarding the
situation in the Middle East. They can be found on our web site:
1) "Uphold Rights": Op-Ed in the Atlanta Journal
2) "Open Letter to Jerry Falwell": from Media Monitors web site
As usual, we also refer you to a couple of other pieces:
1) "The Long and Winding (Dirt) Road," an article about road closures by Amira Hass, from the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. It was published on January 28, 2001 and can be found from their online archive.
2) "The Handwriting on the Wall," an article from Israel Shamir about the tragedy of Israel's institutional discrimination, and a critique of the turn his writings have taken since we originally posted this update.