One Land, Two People
I thought I’d break off from my normal political analyses for a short anecdote that in my eyes encapsulates both the complexity and the simplicity of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
This is the story of a 65 year-old Israeli roadwork contractor who regularly takes on jobs for the Israel Defense Ministry. Back in 2001, when the second intifada was still very much at its height, he was building a road for the army at a base near Nabi Musa, about 20 kilometers east of Jerusalem, just off the road to Jericho and the Dead Sea.
One weekend, he left his 600,000 NIS Caterpillar Excavator parked outside the base, under the watchful eyes of the soldiers guarding the entrance to the base. After the weekend was over, the contractor showed up at the base only to discover that his machine had disappeared. Interrogating the soldiers at the base, he was told that a purple truck with a broken left tail light had driven right up to the base entrance and loaded the Excavator. The soldiers did not suspect foul play because of the confidence the thief exhibited, and the sheer brazenness of the act.
Our hero did not waste any time cursing his misfortune (and the soldiers), and quickly called all the contacts he had accumulated over the many years located in the Jerusalem area. After many calls, he finally got a phone number of another contractor who worked with a Palestinian driver from Ramallah with a purple truck. Calling this contractor, he faked a work order entailing the hauling of an imaginary tractor.
He arrived at the designated meeting place with a reinforcement of three well-built cousins. After what seemed an eternity, a purple truck with a broken left tail light approached. The surprised and alarmed driver was ambushed and herded into a van where he was asked about the Caterpillar. After initially denying any involvement, he finally admitted to the theft, and regrettably informed his abductors that he had already sold the machine for 30,000 NIS to a dealer in Hebron. After supplying the phone number and address of the buyer, the thief was released.
The contractor quickly drove over to the DCO (District Coordination Office) offices south of Jerusalem, on the road to Bethlehem and Hebron. The DCO officers were sympathetic to his plight, and claimed that a joint recovery operation could be coordinated with the Palestinian police in Hebron. The only problem was that this kind of operation would take time.
Fearing he had no time to spare, as the valuable machine would most likely be dismantled and sold by the time this operation would be organized, he set out on a solo mission. Taking his loyal cousins with him again, he took a 4X4 vehicle with Israeli number plates, circumvented the various Israeli and Palestinian roadblocks along the way, and stole into Hebron in the middle of the night.
Arriving at the address given by the thief, low and behold, there was the Caterpillar, parked nonchalantly outside the buyer’s house. As they did not have the means to load the machine, and could not simply drive it all the way back to Jerusalem, they decided to report their find to the DCO.
Just as they were about to leave, two pick-up trucks arrived on the scene, unloading a dozen men armed with Kalashnikov rifles. They were arrested, and taken to a nearby lockup facility belonging to the Palestinian Authority’s Internal Security apparatus, where they were asked about the circumstances bringing them into a Palestinian-ruled area, with Israeli number plates, and in the dead of the night. After many cigarettes, and plenty of black coffee, their story was corroborated by the somewhat dazed buyer who was called in as well, together with the machine.
After the interrogation was over, and the object returned to its rightful owner, the contractor was asked by one of the Palestinian officers in charge: “You Jews are either very crazy or totally stupid. Do you know what would have happened if the wrong people had gotten hold of you?” To which the contractor replied, pointing at the Caterpillar: “This is my livelihood, without it my life means nothing. Have you ever had to fight for your livelihood?” The officer took a long breath, and said: “Every day since I was born.”
This story is an example to how complicated the Israeli – Palestinian conflict actually is. Same land, completely different cultures. But at the end of the day it is also very simple, because behind all the politics, borders, roadblocks, and history, stand real people who first and foremost are only interested in making a living and leading a normal life.