Parked near Ramallah's central Manara Square, are rows of the ubiquitous yellow vans that transport Palestinians throughout the West Bank. Known as services, their drivers are fearless navigators of the often fraught road-network throughout the divided territory.
On a recent journey from Ramallah to the northern town of Jenin, I came to realise the extent to which the notion of distance in the West Bank takes on a different meaning; where journeys are measured not in terms of kilometres, but rather by time and how many checkpoints have to be crossed before you reach your destination.
Travelling in the West Bank can provide a unique insight into the daily challenges of life under occupation. The movement of Palestinians in and out of the West Bank, as well as within the area, is controlled by a system of checkpoints, road blocks, earth mounds and gates.
About 500 checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers restrict the movement of the 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, affecting access to school, work, places of worship and family. According to the UN, the function of most of these physical obstacles is to control Palestinian movement on roads primarily used by Israeli colonists.
In the service
This is something that Abu Samir — service driver extraordinaire and aspiring children's author — is all too familiar with. He drives the 60 kilometre route from Ramallah to Jenin seven days a week, transporting regular passengers including university students he regards as friends, to and from Jenin.
As his service begins to fill up, the Ramallah-born, former Fatah political activist tells me he is no longer affiliated with any group, after becoming disillusioned with the path that his former party has taken. Abu Samir instructs me, the only foreigner, to sit in the front seat.
"It may or may not make our journey easier," he jokes, as seven other passengers, including a teacher and a doctor on their way home to Jenin to see their families, students attending university, and farmer Abu Mohammad, pile into the van.
Leaving Ramallah at 9.30am, we start out on the northwards route towards Jenin, driving past the vast Eli colony; the tell-tale red roofs and homogeneous architecture of Israel's colonisation project dotting the hill tops. Palestinian villages in the valley exist in the shadow of Eli, cut off from agricultural lands and neighbouring areas.
Developing like most colonies in the West Bank from a small cluster of homes, gradually expanding and taking more land, Eli and its outposts — considered illegal under Israeli law — span seven hilltops connected by a network of roads. Established in 1984, according to Israeli colony-watchdog Peace Now, the colony is home to around 2,500 Israelis.
Along the narrow, hilly roads we pass Palestinian cars, Israeli colonists, as well as military vehicles, before slowly approaching the first Israeli checkpoint where cars are backed up for 200 metres.
Like many of the larger checkpoints located throughout the West Bank, this one separates the dual-carriageway into two lanes — one for cars that are obviously carrying colonists who are waved through. The other lane is for Palestinians whose fate is undetermined — sometimes simply told to hold up their IDs; other times ordered to stand outside their vehicles for hours at a time.
Approaching the checkpoint, Abu Samir slows down and the passengers, myself included, survey what appears to be the aftermath of an attack. Soldiers lie on the ground, some not moving; others struggling to move towards the fortified watchtowers, with soldiers positioned behind concrete slabs.
Additional troops can be seen moving down from a nearby military base in armoured personnel carriers. One soldier is dragged along the ground, his helmet banging on the tarmac, and others have their machine guns cocked at the ready.
But as we move closer, I notice one of the soldiers lying on the ground is grinning; another appears bored. Young Israeli colonists standing at an Israeli bus-stop located at the checkpoint, look bemused.
"It's only a drill," Abu Samir tells his passengers, looking relieved and providing an explanation for the surreal situation in which we have found ourselves, where Palestinian civilians are being used as part of a military drill, simulating an attack on the checkpoint.
As we slowly move through a process where each passenger is screened by the soldiers, a soldier shouts in Hebrew telling Abu Samir to pull his van over to the side of the road, where we are all ordered out. Lining up on the pavement, one soldier takes our documents, while another checks inside the vehicle looking for concealed weapons.
Finding nothing, they wave us through and we continue our journey towards the infamous Hawara checkpoint at the entrance to the city of Nablus. About 5 kilometres down the road, another smaller checkpoint looms in the distance, manned only by a couple of soldiers in a concrete structure in the middle of the road. Abu Samir's passengers' documents are stashed on the dashboard and he hands them all, including my passport, over to the soldiers.
Another car service is parked on the side of the road, the passengers, including children and elderly people, standing outside the vehicle. "We are going to be here for some time," Abu Samir tells us, after an exchange with one of the two young soldiers on duty. "They say that they are looking for something, but I have no idea what that is."
After checking through each of the Palestinian passengers' ID cards, the soldier comes around to my window and asks what I am doing in the West Bank.
"I'm going to Jenin," I reply. "Why?" asks the soldier, looking genuinely puzzled.
"Just to have a look," I say. "So you have family there?" he asks, to which I reply no.
"OK, you can go."
As we are waved through, the other car service remains by the side of the road, its passengers still waiting in the midday sun.
"The soldiers do this just to make our lives difficult — it's psychological. They wait until someone gets angry about waiting around and then they use it as an excuse," Abu Samir says.
Only kilometres down the winding road, is our third checkpoint — where the soldiers stand on the roadside, stopping Palestinian cars and checking IDs, comparing the names and numbers against a list of people wanted by Israeli authorities. Soldiers at another small checkpoint simply wave us through.
As we edge closer towards Jenin, the landscape flattens out, transforming into fertile agricultural planes of the northern West Bank. Men and women tend to fields on either side of the road and children man stalls selling large, fresh watermelons.
Around a bend in the road, Abu Samir notices one of the notorious "flying checkpoints" too late to turn around and find an alternate route. Cars, buses and heavy vehicles are backed up for over 500 metres in both directions, with three Israeli military jeeps and around 15 soldiers stationed in the middle of the road.
Speaking in Hebrew via loudspeaker a soldier tells the driver at the front of the line to switch off his engine. On a small hill overlooking the road, three soldiers lie in a field, looking up at the summer sky, their machine guns by their sides.
The driver of each vehicle is put through the same paces by the soldiers — switch off the vehicle, step out with your hands in the air, pull up your shirt to expose your abdomen, open all the car doors, walk slowly towards the soldiers to present your ID.
After waiting over half an hour, Abu Samir and the doctor travelling in the car service get out of the vehicle for a cigarette and to stretch their legs. An Israeli jeep patrolling the long queue of cars stops and they are ordered back inside.
Abu Mohammad, the elderly farmer, jokes that he will be asked to raise his bedraggled dish-dash above his head, providing a bit of light relief for the passengers of Abu Samir's van. He begins to quietly pray, as other passengers try to make light of the situation.
"Having to deal with these types of situations everyday makes people more radical in their thinking," Abu Samir says. "These are the real problems, dealing with the daily humiliation of waiting."
Just as Abu Samir's yellow van finally reaches the front of the long queue, the soldiers decide to abandon their random searches, packing up the temporary roadblock and allowing the traffic to continue. "Typical," he laughs, as we continue along the final stretch.
At 1.30pm, after being stopped at five Israeli military checkpoints, we had finally reached our destination: Jenin — 60 kilometres and four hours away from Ramallah.