In the wild West Bank, traffic laws are mere recommendations
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New billboard campaign proclaims, in Hebrew and Arabic, 'Jews and Arabs want to return home safely'

In the wild West Bank, traffic laws are mere recommendations

With car crash fatalities beyond the Green Line soaring, Palestinians and Israelis set out to change the driving culture and save lives

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

The blue vehicle attempts to pass the white truck by merging into the oncoming traffic lane, nearly colliding with the approaching vehicle on Route 60 in the West Bank. (Courtesy: Avraham Binyamin)
The blue vehicle attempts to pass the white truck by merging into the oncoming traffic lane, nearly colliding with the approaching vehicle on Route 60 in the West Bank. (Courtesy: Avraham Binyamin)

Since the June 27 West Bank car crash that took the lives of all five of his children and his ex-wife, Hassan Dabash has barely left his home. Save for visits to their graves at the local cemetery in his Sur Baher neighborhood of East Jerusalem, he is a “walking ghost,” and rarely seen outside, his friends say.

“My doctor told me I shouldn’t go back to work because I might collapse at any moment, so I just stay here,” he said.

Dabash wasn’t in the minibus taxi that had been en route to his ex-wife’s home in Bethlehem on that sweltering afternoon.

While the police have not completed their probe into the incident, Dabash said the driver had gotten impatient in the two-lane, shoulderless Route 60 and attempted to pass the vehicle in front of him.

After veering into oncoming traffic, the minibus picked up speed in order to merge back into the right side. Unwilling to be cut off, the driver of the vehicle it had passed also sped up, forcing the minibus into a collision with a rapidly approaching coach bus.

The two vehicles collided head-on at speeds of above 75 miles per hour, according to Dabash. Six bodies were pulled from the wreckage when paramedics arrived a few minutes later.

(Clockwise from top left) Issa, 8; Muhammad 10; Taysir 15: Ilina 6; Ahmad 17. All five children were killed in a West Bank car accident on June 27, 2017. (Courtesy)
(Clockwise from top left) Issa, 8; Muhammad 10; Taysir 15: Ilina 6; Ahmad 17. All five children were killed in a West Bank car accident on June 27, 2017. (Courtesy)

Sulafa Dabash, 36, and four of her five children — Ahmad, 17, Muhammad, 10, Issa, 8, and Ilana, 6 — were pronounced dead at the scene, along with the minibus driver, Adel Ahmad Khatib, 56. The Israeli coach bus driver was treated for minor injuries, but walked away from the incident largely unscathed.

The fifth child, 15-year-old Taysir Dabash, was taken to Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus Hadassah Hospital in critical condition, but succumbed to his wounds later that evening.

The elder Dabash had been sitting with friends outside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City when he received a call from his sister. She relayed that his ex-wife had been killed in a car accident, but that the children traveling with her were unharmed.

“They didn’t want to give me the bad news all at once,” said Dabash, who had remained in frequent contact with his ex-wife since their divorce.

Fifteen minutes later, his sister called him back and slowly told the 42-year-old what had really happened.

“That driver murdered my family, all to make a few extra shekels,” he told The Times of Israel on Sunday, looking blankly at the floor of his apartment in restrained disbelief. “Had he made it back to Bethlehem a minute later, would there really have been no one else left for his next ride?”

Hassan Dabash stands at the graves of his ex-wife and five children who were killed in a car accident in the West Bank on June 27, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Hassan Dabash stands at the graves of his ex-wife and five children who were killed in a car accident in the West Bank on June 27, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Dabash, who works as a hotel concierge, said that he has long been disturbed by the prevalence of road rage in the West Bank. “It’s like a ticking time bomb, and you don’t know when it will go off. I’m scared I will die every time I head out onto those roads,” he said, looking up for the first time.

The crash was the second deadly incident in under a week on the same stretch of road on the West Bank’s main north-south artery.

Four days earlier, three people had been killed and five injured in a horrific collision between an Israeli vehicle and a Palestinian vehicle on Route 60. The fatalities were passengers in the Palestinian car, three women aged 20, 50 and 60, the Israel Police said.

Twelve people lost their lives in West Bank car accidents in June alone, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, along with 34 inside Israel.

In 2016, the number of fatal car accidents in the West Bank rose to 32, with 42 people killed, compared to 28 fatal accidents that killed 34 people there in 2015.

Fatalities in the 2017 calendar year are well on pace to reach an all-time high, with 31 people dead as of the end of July.

Within the Green Line, on the other hand, there was a slight drop in the number of fatal car accidents last year, from 292 in 2015 to 287 in 2016.

Putting politics aside

It was against that backdrop that Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan convened a meeting with local Palestinian leaders last month to launch a new civil society organization to combat traffic deaths in the West Bank.

“This is a matter that extends beyond political disagreements. Car accidents are the number one cause of death in the West Bank,” Dagan told The Times of Israel. Raising awareness in Israeli and Palestinian communities about the importance of responsible driving should be a top priority of this government, he said.

The group’s first project has been a billboard campaign throughout the West Bank using the slogan “Jews and Arabs want to return home safely,” written in Hebrew and Arabic.

Dagan said that the campaign will be followed by aggressive lobbying in the Knesset for legislation to improve West Bank roads, most of which, including Route 60, have only one lane in each direction

One of the Palestinian local officials present at the meeting recognized that the phenomenon has plagued Palestinians most. “We have many people that drive on the roads without ever having obtained a license,” said the official, who, fearing retribution from the Palestinian Authority for cooperating with Israel, requested that his name not be disclosed. He will be referred to as “M.”

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan (R) shakes hands with Palestinian local leaders at a launch meeting of a new joint initiative to combat traffic fatalities in the West Bank on July 13, 2017. (Courtesy: Samaria Regional Council)
Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan (R) shakes hands with Palestinian local leaders at a launch meeting of a new joint initiative to combat traffic fatalities in the West Bank on July 13, 2017. (Courtesy: Samaria Regional Council)

“The problem of poor driving is most severe among taxi and bus drivers who drive way too fast, but also are not given enough rest,” M said, explaining that those motorists often accrue countless tickets from PA police in Areas A and B of the West Bank, where President Mahmoud Abbas’s forces maintain civil control. “But only now are they beginning to actually strip drivers of their licenses.”

Israel Police reported that the minibus driver transporting Dabash’s family had received over 30 tickets from PA traffic police, yet had been allowed to remain on the road.

A statement from the Dabash family was much more biting in its criticism of the PA over the June 27 crash. “We, the Dabash family, place full responsibility on the Palestinian Authority, headed by President [Mahmoud Abbas], and on the Palestinian traffic police. This is part of the lawlessness on the highways and public roads in the West Bank, which has reaped the souls of our loved ones from Jerusalem and other areas for a long time.”

Hassan Dabash clarified that he was not involved in crafting the statement.

Officials from the PA’s Transportation Ministry declined to comment on their efforts to crack down on reckless driving, saying it was not a public issue.

In addition to calling for stricter enforcement from PA traffic police, the family also demanded the Israeli government widen the roads under its jurisdiction in Area C. Roads “urgently need two lanes in each direction,” the statement read.

One of the dozens of signs across the West Bank reading "Jews and Arabs want to return home safely." (Courtesy: Samaria Regional Council)
One of the dozens of signs across the West Bank reading “Jews and Arabs want to return home safely.” (Courtesy: Samaria Regional Council)

M. said that the joint initiative’s upcoming meeting will include Israeli and Palestinian engineers who will draft draft plans to expand West Bank roads. “Within two to three months, we should start to see movement on the ground,” he predicted confidently.

But Dudi Asraf, commander of the Israel Police’s traffic traffic division in the Hebron district, said such projects were far from straightforward. “The widening of roads becomes a political matter as Palestinians sometimes appeal to the High Court of Justice to prevent the construction.” They do not want to lose additional privately owned land to the state, he explained.

With an imminent solution to West Bank infrastructure unlikely, Asraf said that his division has redoubled its efforts to crack down on unlawful driving. “We have introduced several different methods involving strategic placement of police cars at various ‘dead spots’ throughout our district, and with the help of satellite cameras, we have substantially increased the number of traffic tickets distributed.”

The tactics Asraf described are part of a larger operation launched by the Judea and Samaria (West Bank) District of the Israel Police after the June 27 crash. The division has since been publicizing regular updates on anywhere between 500 and 1,000 traffic tickets distributed for various traffic violations, on Route 60 in particular.

“There is somewhat of a culture here in the West Bank, like in the kibbutzim, that understands the law, but if no police are around then it is viewed as more of a recommendation,” Asraf said.

During a 30-minute patrol with a pair of officers in a civilian car, this reporter saw three Palestinians pulled over for illegally crossing double white lines dividing Route 60 in order to pass other vehicles. Each of the drivers told the officers that they were in a rush to visit a family member in the hospital. One of them was in the driver’s seat despite never having received a license. He was promptly detained and his vehicle was impounded by the arresting officers.

Israel Police place a Palestinian under arrest for driving without ever having received a license on July 30, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Israel Police place a Palestinian under arrest for driving without ever having received a license on July 30, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“The more people are convinced that police presence might be at any corner, the faster we will see an improvement in this deadly phenomenon,” Asraf said.

He added that his unit has placed a particular emphasis on the confiscation of illegal vehicles known as mashtubot — an Arabic term connoting a car that has been erased. These are Israeli vehicles that were totaled in crashes or ones that authorities deemed too old to be allowed on the road. Looking to make an extra buck, the drivers end up selling them to Palestinian car shops. The vehicles eventually find their way back on the roads, but almost exclusively in the West Bank, where enforcement is deemed to be weaker.

“We call these vehicles death coffins,” said M.

Asraf said his division has impounded dozens of mashtubot over the past several months. Each is taken to a graveyard outside the police station, where it is flattened by a massive boulder dropped on it repeatedly by a crane.

For his part, Dabash praised police efforts to rein in illicit driving as well as the joint Israeli-Palestinian billboard campaign. “I hope that people will actually comprehend what those signs say, instead of just reading them and moving on with their day,” he said.

“Nobody should have to endure what I am going through right now,” Dabash said, speaking at the graves of his loved ones, Route 60’s latest victims. “Nobody should have to feel this pain.”

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