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A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the West Bank

How the culture of shared rides around Israeli settlements breeds a sense of community, and a delusion of safety

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Hitchhikers wait for rides south from the Gilo trempiada in Jerusalem in June. (Photo by Daniel Estrin)
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The discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers Monday put a grisly end to a search that began on June 12. The mystery began at a hitchhiking post in the West Bank, where Eyal Yifrah (19) from Elad, Gilad Shaar (16) from Talmon, and Naftali Fraenkel (16) from Nof Ayalon reportedly got into a stranger’s car at about 10 p.m. They were children of the settlements, and they were using the most common form of settler public transportation. Watching the news unfold, I remembered a three-day trip I took through the West Bank by thumb. I flipped through my notes from that journey to relive some of the normal rides the teens must have taken—all of which would have led them to think it would have been safe to accept a final ride.

The Hebrew word for a free ride, tremp, comes from the German trampen, which means to hitch, according to Doron Rubinstein, a contributor to a historical dictionary of the Hebrew language. The word appears in Hebrew dictionaries as early as 1954, suggesting that the early Israelis relied on trempim to get around. A trempiada is the curb where hitchers gather—and where the teens were last seen.

The West Bank settler culture prides itself on hitching. It’s not that no one hitches in Israel proper; in fact, it can be vital in the rural southern and northern reaches of the country. But in the West Bank, settlers see giving rides as an act of God, an affirmation of their ability to rely on the kindness of others in their community. Highly subsidized public transportation can be slow or unreliable or take circuitous routes through dozens of settlements.

For my odyssey by thumb a few years ago, I took a friend. Our only preparations were to arrange a host family in the northern settlement of Yitzhar, to scribble down the phone number of the Psagot winery north of Jerusalem, and to wear the long skirts and shirts of observant settler women.

***

The French Hill trempiada near Hebrew University is the primary point of departure for north-bound hitchers. At 9 a.m., we joined half a dozen others who were holding their fingers up, standing by the road. A man with a thick brown beard, brown eyes, a brown crocheted yarmulke, a blue T-shirt, and cargo pants slowed down his white Hyundai.

“Psagot?” we asked.

“On my way,” he answered.

Yoel Noiberger, the driver, was a 26-year-old yeshiva student with three children. He alerted us to the first risk of hitching as his brakes squealed to protest his abrupt turns on the steep hill leading to Psagot Winery.

Inside the winery, glass tiles on the floor revealed a cellar full of barrels, where more than 100,000 bottles of kosher wine are produced every year, half for export. The bookshelves held both Daniel Rogov’s World’s 500 Best Kosher Wines and Daniel Rubin’s The Islamic Tsunami. A barista poured cappuccino into angled white ceramic mugs. The Ministry of Agriculture helped fund the boutique’s vine-shaded patio, an ideal venue for politicians to stand for photo-ops. For 125 shekels (about $33) Psagot offered wine tasting and luxurious meals of fish in wine sauce, chicken, salads, and chocolate mousse for dessert.

From there, we caught our second ride north, to the site of a hardscrabble settlement fighting for its survival. Migron began in 2002 as a collection of caravans posted around a cellular tower and grew into the largest West Bank outpost thanks to $1.2 million of public funding. We visited just before Israel destroyed the community because it was built on private Palestinian land.

Ariav Kenig, 29, wheeled his daughter in a stroller as he showed us what was at the time the hilltop’s 50 homes. Some of them were newly built; the residents hoped endless construction would beat the ruling. Their feverishly erected buildings echoed the early Zionist pioneers, who put up towers and stockades overnight to create new Jewish communities.

Kenig offered us his primer on hitchhiking in the territories. It wasn’t too extensive: “Of course, I make sure the car has a yellow license plate,” he said. “The green or white ones are Palestinian. They won’t stop, and you wouldn’t get in if they did. Next you look at the person’s appearance, to check if he looks or speaks like he’s Jewish.”

In other words, his thesis was that basically, as long as the driver was Israeli, you’d probably be OK. Perhaps this assumption makes it easy for settlers to take rides in the middle of the night.

***

Tremp No. 4: A blue Mazda slowed down to take us further north, through roads lined with green crops and olive groves. Tzviki Struk, 29, the driver, lived on the outpost of Esh Kodesh. His family name rang a bell.

“Are you the son of Orit Struk, in Hebron?” I asked. She is currently a member of Knesset with the Jewish Home party; at the time of the hitchhiking, she was one of the most outspoken advocates of the Jewish settlement in the West Bank city.

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t your brother sentenced to prison for beating up a Palestinian boy?” I asked.

“No. It was me.”

“So, aren’t you supposed to be in jail?” I asked.

“Supposed to—maybe,” he said. “But here I am.”

Later I looked up his story. In March 2011, Struk was sentenced to a year and a half in jail for assault, battery, and kidnapping with intent to cause grave harm. As JTA reported, “In July 2007, Struk and an accomplice kidnapped a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, beat him, and left him naked and tied up in an open field, according to the indictment.”

This report stood in stark contrast with the man who welcomed us into his car, gave me his phone number, posed for a photo, and popped in a CD by Israeli musician Ehud Banai. Outside the car, the world was full of enemies, whether liberals opposed to the Hebron settlement or a Palestinian shepherd in the wrong place at the wrong time. Inside the car, we were just fellow travelers chatting about music.

***

My companion and I picked wild figs along the road before walking into Ofra, established in 1975 and today numbering over 3,000 people. Near the town hall building, educator Rina Yashar-Itzhak, 52, picked figs, too. We helped her fill her basket, and she drove us to her home for an impromptu lunch.

In the modest kitchen Yashar-Itzhak offered rice, meat, and a piquant carrot salad. She said that in the West Bank, she always picks up hitchers, who are “anash”—an acronym for “anashim shelanu,” or “our people.”

“It’s like when you are abroad,” she said. “Even if there was an Israeli I didn’t know, I’d help him out. We are a family. We belong.”

Yashar-Itzhak offered bottles of water and urged us to visit again.

***

At the Ofra trempiada, Meir Shilbi, 58, from Kedumim, took us northbound through a forested gorge and high hills with olive terraces cascading down their sides.

I asked him whether he picks up hitchers often.

“Your question is like ‘In a restaurant, do you tip?’ ” he said.

We drove through Tapuach Junction, where the signs were sprayed with the words “Revenge” and “Death to the Arabs” in Hebrew. Shilbi did not mention the signs; instead, he noted, incongruously for the hot day, that the area looks like the Alps in winter. Then he pointed out a parked car covered in Hebrew stickers as we drove through the Palestinian village of Hawara.

“See this car? It has no plates,” he said. “It’s stolen. In their land, there is no law and no judge.” Shilbi drove us to our hosts’ front door, which was on an outpost half a mile from Yitzhar.

Yitzhar, pop. 900, is known as the home of some of the most radical West Bank settlers. Sigal and Amos Azaria, both 30, seemed more like radical Greenpeace activists. They had replaced their toilet bowls with buckets, using sawdust to contain the smell until they can dump the waste in a compost bin outside. They had three boys and one girl, aged newborn to 5, all blond, and a growing flock of ducks and geese.

There was little time to get to know the Azarias before settlement spokesman Avraham Binyamin arrived to give us a tour. His car wasn’t working, and the Azarias offered him their Subaru.

“I will show you the path of our fathers, where people have been hitchhiking for 4,000 years,” he said.

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A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the West Bank

How the culture of shared rides around Israeli settlements breeds a sense of community, and a delusion of safety