On the road with a Palestinian smuggling gang

By Theresa Breuer on September 4th, 2013

The drive only takes two hours, but it’s a hell of a ride. Normally, the 70 kilometres by car would take an hour at best, but this place hasn’t been normal in more than 60 years. The path leads through Bedouin land, occupied territories, a closed military zone, and finally the desert of Israel. It is the route that a group of Palestinian smugglers takes every day. What do they smuggle? “Only people,” our smuggler Ibrahim assures us. “No weapons.”

We meet Ibrahim in a parking lot next to a mosque in Yatta, agreeing to cross the Palestinian-Israeli border with him illegally. It’s almost ten o’clock in the morning in this small town in the southern West Bank, a grey Thursday. The smuggler is driving a white Subaru Impreza. It is 20 years old, with a 1.6 litre engine and 90 horsepower – an inconspicuous family car, but, crucially, with four-wheel drive.

The black interior of the car is slowly rotting away. On the dashboard lays a pack of cigarettes. Next to it is a paper cup filled with black coffee.

Ibrahim is 27 years old. He is wearing jeans, a yellow hoodie and a black jacket. He has been working as a smuggler for ten years. A friend of his offered the position to him when Ibrahim couldn’t find a job after finishing school. Today, he belongs to a gang of 20 smugglers in the area. The gang smuggles around a hundred people every day from the West Bank into Israel. 7,000 Palestinians work in Israel illegally.

Before Ibrahim picks up his “goods”, he tops up the engine oil at a gas station. “We’ll need it,” he says. “A breakdown can have disastrous consequences out here.”

Then we’re off. The first stop is a small house on a hilltop in Yatta. A chicken is meandering across the yard. Ibrahim stops the car in front of the door and honks. “Yalla, yalla,” he shouts, while the engine is running. Then a young man steps out of the house, stows his backpack in the trunk and leaps in.

His name is Bsallam. He is 29 years old and an illegal construction worker in Israel. “There are no jobs in Palestine, and I didn’t get a work permit in Israel,” he says, and shrugs. The unemployment rate among youth is as high as 30 per cent, so for the past three years, Bsallam has been crossing the border back and forth in order to earn money for his family.

We’re off to the next house, only a couple of minutes away. Same thing. A woman in a hijab behind a barred door says goodbye to a young man, Mohammed – he’s also a construction worker. Mohammed takes the seat next to Bsallam. On our third and last stop we pick up a dark-skinned boy who hardly seems 18 years old. He will not say a word on the entire ride.

There are many men like the three in our car, and they come from all over the West Bank. Israeli estimates suggest that around 7,000 Palestinians work in Israel illegally, most of them in construction, where they earn up to 30 Euros ($40) a day.

Roaring trade

At what feels like a hundred kilometres per hour, Ibrahim is now doing the Palestinian version of Grand Theft Auto, racing through narrow streets. He honks schoolchildren out of the way, not wanting to lose any time. After a few kilometres we leave the city, and turn onto a dirt road that winds through lush green hills. Here, we barely see other people, and, if we do, they are riding on donkeys through the countryside.

Every bump goes straight through the spine.

Bedouin villages lie in the distance, shanties without electricity or running water. Everything is quiet; we are on Palestinian land.

Ibrahim is accelerating hard, only to hit the brakes a few seconds later. The dirt road forces him down to the speed of the donkey we just passed. The suspension of the car is worn out, and as we drive through dry riverbeds and pot-holes, the exhaust hits the ground several times. Every bump goes straight through the spine.

Ibrahim doesn’t even blink, smoking one cigarette after the other. The young men look straight ahead. Bsallam stoically plays with his misbaha, or prayer beads.

Smuggling pays off for guys like Ibrahim. Since Israel has built a wall around the West Bank in order to keep terrorists out, it has become increasingly hard for Palestinian workers to cross the border. If they don’t get an Israeli work permit, they have to rely on smugglers.

Ibrahim and his gang live in the right spot: there is a small stretch of land in the south of the West Bank where Israel hasn’t built a wall, because it would run through a nature reserve.

Bribes

Ibrahim’s old Nokia is ringing, playing a cheerful Samba tune. “What,” he yells into his handset while driving through a mogul field. “Military,” says a man at the other end of the line. “We must make a stop.” It is one of his fellow smugglers, a few kilometres ahead of Ibrahim.

He knows about the patrol not because the smugglers use a drone that transmits a live video feed to a dashboard mounted HD monitor, but because they rely on sharp eyes, and good old-fashioned bribery. Meaning they pay several Bedouins sitting on hilltops to tell them when the Israeli Defence Forces are close. Without them, the smugglers would never know what awaits them around the next corner.

The Israeli military has caught Ibrahim a couple of times already. “Sometimes it happens every two months, sometimes once a year,” he says. So far he has been lucky, meaning the military has released him every time. Ibrahim usually pays a hefty fine, and the soldiers destroy his tires, the car battery or his windows. Since he started smuggling, Ibrahim has gone through 30 to 40 cars.

“It is easier to buy a new car than to repair the old one,” he says.

His colleagues aren’t always so lucky. If caught, some go to prison for many years. Last year, one of Ibrahim’s friends was shot dead because he tried to run. The Israelis were faster. Their military uses the AIL Storm to patrol extreme terrain, a high tech, customised version of the Jeep Wrangler with computerised turbo diesel, up to 200 horsepower, and a sophisticated five-speed automatic.

“Shit happens,” Ibrahim says. When the military asks him to stop, he usually does. Unless he’s certain he can get away.

Silent treatment

We meet the car of the other smugglers on a green hill. In order to avoid the Israeli military jeep, the men have retreated to a safe area, drinking coffee they got in a nearby Bedouin village. A third car is joining us. There are only a few hundred metres between the military area and us.

After ten minutes, we get a phone call. “All clear”, says the Bedouin spy.

We pass our time with small talk, more coffee and more cigarettes. An elderly smuggler with a long beard has bags of cotton candy in the back seat. He won’t tell us why, unless we convert to Islam. He doesn’t trust infidels. A cock is crowing in the nearby village.

After ten minutes, we get a phone call. “All clear,” says the Bedouin spy. “Yalla,” says Ibrahim again. Everybody rushes to the car, the journey continues. Ibrahim starts the engine, and speeds off.

Suddenly, the landscape changes. Desert lies ahead. There is no road to be seen, only sand and gravel. Ibrahim mashes the pedal to the floor. We can’t see how fast he is going since the speedometer of the Subaru is broken, but the needle of the rev counter is now permanently in the red zone.

We measure the speed with an iPhone app and later discover that our smuggler raced across the gravel road at almost 170 kilometres per hour.

Ibrahim now pulls out a second phone, a Motorola E816. It’s so old you can’t even find it on eBay anymore. He is using it as a radio to communicate with the Bedouins across the hills. “Talk to me”, he yells into the phone. After getting an answer, he swerves, almost crashing into the other smuggler’s car. The construction workers don’t move. We hold our breath. The military is close, Ibrahim warns us.

Now his cell phone is ringing again, the samba melody competing with the roar of the engine. With one hand, Ibrahim is holding the phone talking to his fellow smugglers, with the other he’s controlling the steering wheel, a cigarette pinched between his index and his middle finger. While he is trying to buckle up, ash falls to the floor. The men in the back are clinging to the front seats.

A sign warns us that the Israelis are ready to shoot.

It only takes a few minutes until we reach a paved road again, but it seems like an eternity. We pass a concrete pillar that says in three languages:

DANGER! Firing Area.

Entrance forbidden.

It is the place where Ibrahim’s colleague was shot last year. He accelerates again, and we slide onto the opposite lane. Hot air is blowing in our faces from the vent, cold air is coming into the car from the half-open driver’s window. And the samba melody seems to never stop.

Finally, we leave the military zone. Ibrahim is slowing down the pace, leaving our heads spinning. The street signs are not in Arabic any more but in Hebrew. Now we have to be inconspicuous, because our Palestinian number plate reveals that we are not supposed to drive on Israeli roads.

Worthwhile endeavours

Ibrahim doesn’t want to get a legal job unless he gets paid as much as he is earning as a smuggler. This will probably never happen. He takes a hundred Israel shekel – about 20 euros – from every person he smuggles. Ibrahim drives to Israel seven days a week, sometimes twice a day, back and forth. If he takes three people a day, he makes almost 250 euros a day.

“Alhamdulillah,” Ibrahim says and grins.

The muezzin calls for noon prayers as we enter in the Bedouin town Shaqib al-Salam. Desert dust is covering the dashboard, the seats, our clothes. In a remote side street, the young men get out of the car. Before they vanish in an abandoned house, Ibrahim collects the money through the gap in the driver’s window. He doesn’t look at the men.

And he doesn’t look back when he turns the car around, stepping on the gas pedal, racing back towards the West Bank. In half an hour, he will be safe again.

Names have been changed to protect identities.

Gadget war: how the two sides are armed

A 1992 Subaru Impreza vs. an AIL Storm light armoured vehicle
A Motorola E816 vs. a Tadiran HF-6000 military radio
A bribed bedouin vs. a Skylark Drone