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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.

Binyamin was 26, but his abundant beard and a far-off gaze gave him the look of someone 10 years older. He grew up in central Israel. When he was 15 he ran away from home to the Od Yosef Hai (Joseph Lives) Yeshiva, at the time inside the Palestinian city Nablus and today in Yitzhar. Od Yosef Hai is where The King’s Torah was conceived; it’s a book discussing when Jews may kill non-Jews.

To Binyamin, hitching was a part of life. He knew it could be dangerous; he said his sister was shot in the neck and backside while she waited for a ride from Ofra. Binyamin followed her by thumb to Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

We watched the setting sun cast pink light on the limestone-crusted hills. I wondered why settle this land when it is so beautiful untouched. He said, “To see land and not settle it is like seeing food and not eating it.”

Binyamin returned us to the Azarias and managed to start his car and drive off to his house on another hilltop. Sigal and Amos Azaria met while studying in Haifa’s Technion University. They lived in Sanur, another northern West Bank settlement, until Israel dismantled it and all the settlements in Gaza in 2005. Watching soldiers crush his house was so traumatizing for Amos that he stopped picking up the rare hitcher in uniform and dropped out of reserves.

“The army has become the enemy of the public,” he said.

Unlike the settlements that turn the other cheek to the demolitions, Yitzhar fights back, Amir said. I asked what that means. Sigal answered, tag mehir, Hebrew for price tag. What does that mean?

“Fire plays a major role,” Amir said. “In the Arab villages.”

Who does it?

A hitcher tries to erase ‘Jews are sons of bitches’ from a bus stop and hitching stop at Tapuach junction, near Yitzhar. (Daniella Cheslow)

“No one does it. It’s done,” Amir said. “People burn fields and cars. The state feels it can abuse us. But if every time they harm us it causes this mess, then they will see it’s not worth it.”

In the evening, Sigal made pancakes on a griddle. Her kids slathered them in carob and almond paste. Her eldest son, Elisha, made our beds. The next morning, Amos practiced English reading with the kids, holding three of them piled on his lap on the couch.

***

Driver No. 13 steered a battered white Subaru that seemed to be running solely on luck. Drivers No. 14, a couple from Shilo, barely spoke to us because their baby boy wailed the whole ride. Driver No. 16 was a very pregnant woman in a silver Land Rover and named Vered Struk, wife of Tzviki from Esh Kodesh. The settlements are a small world.

We stopped at Havat Yishuv Hadaat, a spiritual retreat where the religious can meditate in the open air, swim in an ancient cistern, and study in a cave furnished with long tables and benches. At the farm’s bus stop, Hebrew graffiti spelled out “Hakuna matata, what a wonderful phrase,” next to “Kahane was right!”—an homage to the ultranationalist Meir Kahane, who advocated annexing Gaza and the West Bank and expelling most Arabs from Greater Israel.

Cleveland transplant Tamar Ben-Shahar, 51, was driver No. 18. She wore a white cap, a pink-and-white shirt, and enormous sunglasses, and she carted five hitchers in her minivan south toward Beit El, just north of Jerusalem. It’s not uncommon for one hitcher to approach a large car, and then call for an entourage to join him in the empty seats. From there we took our only bus of the trip—to Gilo, an Israeli neighborhood in southern East Jerusalem.

The Gilo trempiada was organized according to destination, with the people traveling the furthest south standing behind those headed to closer locales. We pinned our sights on Efrat’s bagel shop, which has excellent smoked salmon. Efrat is part of Gush Etzion, named for four Jewish communities that were destroyed in the 1948 war, with nearly half their 450 residents massacred; the three murdered boys were studying at a yeshiva in the Etzion settlement bloc. Today the Gush Etzion Regional Council includes about 20 settlements with land sprawling far beyond the original cluster.

We got into a white Kia van driven by a man wearing a skullcap and speaking Arabic into his phone. Uzi Araki, 53, explained he works on construction in Efrat with Palestinians. Araki learned Arabic growing up in the east Jerusalem neighborhood Beit Safafa. He had a much gentler and more comfortable relationship with Palestinians than the settlers we met in the northern West Bank; in fact, both Israelis and Palestinians tended to be more moderate in the cities near Jerusalem, and they got more extreme toward the edges. The murdered teens’ bodies were found north of Hebron, in the southern West Bank. Araki unloaded us near Efrat’s center, and we bought our bagels in an all-American strip mall. Next door, a pizzeria carried cream soda, root beer, donuts, and frozen drinks.

Bagel shop manager Miri Danziger offered us a ride south to her home town, Tkoa. She wore jeans and a black shirt, reflecting Gush’s mix of religious and secular. She said Tkoa recently got a new road to Jerusalem that had unleashed a housing boom. The newcomers don’t always know road etiquette.

“They talk on the phone, they slam their doors, and they comment on your driving,” Danziger said. “Two weeks ago, someone came with her baby in a baby chair and started telling me to indicate before I turned. I understood that she is not one of the veterans.”

Founded in 1977, Tkoa had about 1,600 residents in 2009. After we reached town, we walked to the home of Shlomo Walfish, a friend of a friend. Shlomo, 27, and his wife Avia, 28, lived in a double caravan in Tkoa Gimel, which according to Peace Now—and the 2005 Sasson report, commissioned by the Israeli government—is an illegal outpost on private Palestinian land. Inside, 10-month-old twins crawled around the floor. Shlomo grew up in Tkoa. Avia grew up in Modi’in.

Shlomo spoke as he made us dinner: cracked eggs over canned tomatoes, simmered on a basic white stove. He said hitching has always been a part of his life, but he can rarely fit travelers in his car because of his two kids. He served in the army and believes in the Jewish right to the land. Yet he shared little of Yitzhar’s enthusiasm for attacking his Arab neighbors.

“If I would wake up tomorrow morning and the Arabs weren’t here I wouldn’t cry,” he said. “But I do want them here, and I want to live in peace.”

The bookshelves in the tiny living room contained a Talmud, books on Kabbalah and halakhah, and modern Israeli fiction. The Walfishes served us dinner on their front porch in the light summer breeze of the desert. The table was set with Israeli standards like cottage cheese and salad. Somewhere, a similar table was set in Tel Aviv, although they were worlds apart.

Shlomo said on clear days he could see the Dead Sea from his porch. When the moon is full he hikes there with friends through the desert. About a half mile away, Tkoa Daled rose on a hilltop, the newest offshoot of the community.

***

In the morning, Shlomo drove us to the Tkoa trempiada, where we waited for only moments before a blue Subaru stopped. It was our 24th and last ride, driven by Yaara Luria, 37. She wore a black long shirt, a purple skirt over black pants, and a white floral headscarf. She had two children and one more on the way.

“As a parent you know that one day your kids will get around hitching, so you have to give rides when you can,” she said. “This is an opportunity to get gifts from God. You take a ride and you get where you need to go, and you get something important, you get a surprise.”

Within 10 minutes we arrived in Har Homa, the southernmost of east Jerusalem’s settlements, and took a bus home. Having been accepted warmly into 24 cars over the course of three days; I was anash, “our people.” To me this was particularly strange because I often travel the same roads by car or via Palestinian public transportation, decidedly not anash.

The murders of three innocent boys may challenge the appeal of hitchhiking on roads shared with potentially hostile drivers. Hopefully, it will end the bravado-driven nighttime hitching that would be a hazard in most places in the world. But getting into those two dozen cars, I could feel the sense of community and delusion of safety that drives each traveler waiting at the side of a West Bank road with a thumb out.

***

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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