Thursday, April 22, 2004

443 Calculations

On the last Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, we were invited to a barbeque at the house of friends in the new city of Modi’in, about a half hour’s drive outside of Jerusalem where we live. On the day of the party, though, the news reported that the main road out of Jerusalem was jammed and there were hour-long back-ups. The solution seemed easy enough: we’d just take the alternative highway - Road 443.

Except that nothing is that simple in the reality of Israel today.

Since September 2000, we have avoided traveling on certain roads, specifically those that pass by areas where there have been terror attacks. This may sound like a logical enough precaution, but if you don’t live here and travel the roads daily, the inconvenience and sheer insanity of such rerouting can get lost.

Imagine in the San Francisco Bay Area if Interstate 280 going up and down the Peninsula was deemed too dangerous after dusk, forcing 95% of commuters onto the only alternative route, the already congested Highway 101. Or if taking the Holland Tunnel in New York vs. the George Washington Bridge meant risking a potential ambush.

The strongest parallel in Israel to these two routes is 443. With only one main entrance to the city of Jerusalem, the country’s traffic engineers were desperate to open up a second entry point to grant some relief to drivers stuck in the perpetual jam. The government spent millions upgrading the formerly little used 443 from two lanes to four. Curves were straightened, bridges and tunnels built.

Problem was that 443 runs pretty much right along the old Green Line. When a couple of people got caught in drive-by shootings , everyone freaked. At first no one took the road at all. Then a trickle began using it again during the day, but never at night.

When our friends invited us to their Independence Day barbeque, Jody and I hadn’t taken 443 for nearly four years. But we were running late. Sitting in traffic would have meant we’d miss all the fun. And definitely the chicken wings.

We quickly ran some quick calculations in our heads. The kind that define the constantly changing parameters of our so-called “normal” life in Israel. We don’t take the bus. We won’t eat out in restaurants without an armed security guard. And we’ve abandoned once close friends who live only a few kilometers away from our supposedly safe apartment in central Jerusalem…but require traveling on a road that doesn’t add up to a total we can live with.

But today…the food, our friends, the traffic. And before we knew what hit us, we’d set out…on 443.

We were immediately struck by its stark, barren beauty. The rolling hills with their jagged rock formations, the long stone terraces that always look to me to be thousands of years old…it’s all so stunning, especially when you haven’t seen them for a while.

Jody rolled down her window. The road was open, traffic was flowing, the mountain air smelled crisp with just a hint of the salt from the Mediterranean Sea, already visible in the distance.

Then, out of the blue, we came to a stop. I quickly noticed that no cars were coming in the other direction either. Something had happened.

People turned off their car engines, got out and stretched their legs. A man opened his back door and out sprang a scraggly black dog who instantly jumped the fence to go for a run on the empty other side of the road. The sounds of the muezzin from a nearby Arab village echoed through the valley.

We turned on the radio. They were reporting that a chefetz chashud – a suspicious object – had blocked the road.

In the midst of our waiting, a totally chutzpadik taxi driver decided he couldn’t wait and started to push his way to the front. Honking ferociously, he yelled to the other cars to start up their engines and move to the right so he could squeeze by on the almost non-existent left-side shoulder.

It was not like he was going to get past the roadblock. What was he looking for? A half a minute’s lead-time over all the rest of us freiers?

And then, after about 40 minutes of frustration, BOOM. Not deafening, but still loud enough to rattle us. The police robot used to zap suspicious objects had apparently taken a bite, and something on the menu had a kick to it.

The traffic started up again. Slowly we snaked down the road, anxiously craning our necks to see what the cause of all the commotion was. I imagined something minor, maybe a small package, a garbage bag or even a suitcase forgotten the side of the road.

It was a car. An old Subaru, left abandoned, and now a smoldering wreck. That was big…had it been blown apart by the robot or was there a bomb inside? I couldn’t stop myself from thinking: what if it had gone off just as we were passing? On the very day – no, the only day – in the last four years that we chose to go this way?

I thought again about how we had calculated the risks and it all seemed so foolish. What’s the use, anyway? Some say if it’s your time, then so be it. In the very real game of Middle East Roulette, you can only pretend that you’ve avoided spinning the wheel. “Real” Israelis just go on with their lives. They get tough. They say things like “we can’t let the terror dictate how we live our lives” and “we won’t give in.”

Little by little, we’ve found ourselves saying the same thing.

Our friends in Modi’in have invited us to another barbeque this coming Independence Day. Jody and I are already debating: should we give 443 a go again? I suppose our calculations will depend on how late we get out of the house.

And whether they’re running out of chicken wings.

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