Off-Roading in Palestine
Updated: May 19, 2020
My husband and I met our friend Adam* at Burning Man in 2013. He roared up to our camp in his RV with a few hitchhikers in tow. He asked if there was room for him to join our camp, and soon enough he became indispensable. A Russian-Israeli McGyver, Adam can fix a generator, build a car from scratch, build a house, and pack a storage unit to within an inch of its life with room to spare, among innumerable other talents. As soon as we got to Israel we reached out to Adam, a native Jerusalemite. Eitan and I wanted to hike in the Judean Desert, not being huge fans of Jerusalem the city itself.
It’s a little strange to think so disparagingly of the home of Judaism, the city we are taught to long for. How many prayers end with “B’shanah haba b’Yerushalyim!” (Next year in Jerusalem!) Yet despite its beautiful hills, compelling history, and incomparable Machne Yehuda Market, Jerusalem feels oppressively religious, with a geography that is inherently political, like the state of Israel itself.
We arrived at the Central Bus Station at 10 am, passing below a sign that read “If I forget Jerusalem, may I forget my right hand.” Adam roared up forty minutes later than expected (classic Israeli time) in a vehicle that looks like a cross between something out of Top Gear and Mad Max. Imagine a white Jeep with GIANT tires, with the body of the car jacked up so high above the wheels that your first step into the vehicle will bring your knees level to your nose. A thick black exhaust pipe is rigged up the front of the car, allowing Adam to essentially drive down a river without water damage to the engine. Needless to say, the Jeep catches the eye, particularly when it’s going 140 km in a 70 km zone. “I get pulled over a lot,” Adam says casually. I watch in awe as Israelis (who already are infamous for their driving) beeline out of our way.
Adam’s friend wants to join us for the hike, so we cross the Green Line and pick him up in the neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev. My husband in the front seat turns and tells me quietly: “We’re going into the territories.” “Oh. We are?” My sense of adventure and apprehension are equally piqued. I’m very curious to spend time in Palestine, but with other Palestinians that we are soon to meet and live with. (More on that in future posts). Driving into Area A from Israel for a day hike is not exactly what I had in mind, but Adam is our madrich for the day and I’m intrigued. We barrel down a hill towards a machsom, or checkpoint. I fumble for my passport, steering myself to be questioned. I held my breath as we approached…and drove through.
“Ma? We’re not getting stopped?”
“No, no, it’s fine.”
The Jeep continues along the highway, until Adam pulls over onto a tiny dirt road that opens through a break in the railing. I assumed we were following a dirt road towards a hiking trail where we would park and you know, hike. I kept waiting for the car to pull over and us to get out, but it seemed like the dirt roads continued to multiply like blood vessels, and Adam always seemed to take the most dangerous looking one. I quickly realized that when we said “hiking,” Adam had understood that as off-roading 100 km per hour. You know when you look off the highway and see those dirt roads and paths spooling over hills and down crevasses? Imagine going down those at the same speed you would go down a highway.
We flew over rocks, into stream beds, up hills where the Jeep was so vertical I was sure we would tip over onto our backs. The sun was shining, and Adam’s friend merrily rolled a joint in the backseat, laugh-yelling at Adam to take it easy, he was spilling the ksessa. I was so exhilarated and so terrified by what was happening, that my physiological response was to laugh hysterically the entire ride.
The Jeep slowed only slightly as we drove through Bedouin camps. Kids pointed at us, a few waved. Two veiled women riding donkeys moved to side of the road as we passed. I caught a glimpse of one of their faces and big brown eyes stared back at me, fearful. We pulled over on a hill with ancient ruins, probably Roman Adam thought. The degree of craftsmanship was evident even after thousands of years of ruin. Most of the rocks we saw had a notch carved in at one end, and a thick knob protruding out on the opposite end, allowing them to fit together like puzzle pieces.
We continued on our journey, driving on the very tip top rim of a range of hills with a plunging fall on either side of us. Adam wanted to show us a very specific spot, and soon we saw an oasis of trees, and an incredibly beautiful home along side a small river. A ruined bridge over an aqueduct arched over a now dry creek bed, with sculpted molding for decoration.”I like coming here because the desert is usually so quiet, and here you can hear nature,” Adam said contentedly, gazing up at the trees filled with birds and their song. We sat quietly for a few minutes dipping our feet into the water, and then headed back to Jerusalem for hummus, and the bus home.
Palestinian home on the nachal.
I cannot emphasis how drunk with access we were. Three Israelis and 1 American, flying over the earth in a Mad Max-adjacent vehicle, climbing mountains, swinging wildly, smoking 3-6 joints in the car. Even going back into Israel, we were not stopped at the checkpoint. Literally and figuratively, nothing could stop us. Adam’s Jeep could handle anything, and our passports defied anyone to stop us. On top of the mountains we could see down the valley towards Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
Down the valley looking towards Jericho.
All of Palestine, all of the Area A I was in, was free for the taking. Within my fear-laughter prompted by the insane velocity of our vehicle, I had the sense of danger. I was not supposed to be there. This land was not supposed to belong to me. I saw the red-topped settlements, all of them strategically on hills cutting up the landscape. I make a conscious effort as a consumer, particularly in Israel, to not spend my tourist dollars on products from these illegal settlements, and on this trip we did not. But I could not stop marveling at the brazenness of our presence. I thought of the hours Palestinians spend being rerouted through their own country, being in line at checkpoints. I thought of our illegality in smoking marijuana in a vehicle, something no Palestinian would even dream of doing in transit if they didn’t want jail time. We could move however we wanted to. Despite my political beliefs, I could not deny how sickeningly intoxicating it was. I think the settlers must feel this way, with the intoxication fed by a divine decree, by the belief that G-d has promised them this land.
The one sign I saw limiting our movement was a sign at the checkpoint. It read: “THIS ROAD LEADS TO ARAB VILLAGES. IT IS NOT SAFE OR LEGAL FOR AN ISRAELI TO PASS HERE.”