The ‘Wacky Races’ and the Tanks


JENIN, WEST BANK—And they’re off! The action-packed “wacky races” are under way across the fields surrounding this embattled town.

A distinctively yellow Palestinian taxi is in the lead. Struggling to keep up, a line of cars and battered pickup trucks gun their motors. Bumping along a barely discernible dirt path, the racers clamber up the crest of a hill. Their spinning tires churning dust, they disappear over the other side. They made it!

Commuting to and from work in Jenin can be a bone-rattling experience.

Dubbing Jenin the Palestinian “capital of terror” because of the large number of suicide bombers who once called it home, Israel has imposed a tight blockade on the town. Tanks guard check-points on all major roads leading into Jenin; ditches make the rest impassable.

If you want to know how this affects life in Jenin, head down to city hall and ask the mayor.

“Life is hell in Jenin,” sighs Mayor Waleed Abu Mwais.

“We are encircled, we are living under siege,” he says. “Israel wants us to live in chaos but it will backfire. Evil generates evil. Violence generates violence.

“We have to take long detours to get past the Israeli checkpoints—what was a four-minute trip can now take four hours,” the 52-year-old mayor complains. “We have 70 percent unemployment because people can no longer get to their jobs inside Israel. What is the relationship between fighting terrorism and all this?”

The blockade has also made the work of humanitarian organizations like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is charged with caring for Palestinian refugees, much more difficult. Larry Hollingworth, 63, is UNRWA’s emergency coordinator for Jenin. He’s been working emergencies around the world for years. You probably remember him from the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s—he was the guy with the long, white Santa Claus beard who led all those convoys through Serb lines to Muslim villages. It made him a real media star, and he deserved it. He’s a really courageous fellow.

Larry, a retired British army colonel, says the Israeli checkpoints are “like kindergarten” compared to the Serb ones.

“Here we are dealing with arrogant, bored, inquisitive 18- and 19-year-olds—not drunken Serbs. The worst that happens to us is that we’re delayed,” he says.

But Larry thinks the blockade is both wrong and counterproductive.

“It alienates the good Palestinians, and the majority, 99 percent, are good and abhor suicide bombings,” he says. “Most people live in surrounding villages but their livelihood is in town. It can take hours to get to work or back home by going around the fields in what we call the ‘wacky races.’ ”

The “wacky races” are run to avoid the Israeli checkpoints. Palestinian taxi drivers are experts at the ploy, which can be extremely dangerous and, at times, deadly.

“The tanks play cat and mouse with the taxis,” Larry says. “The Israeli kids driving those tanks sometimes act like they are playing a video game. They pop up from behind hills scaring the drivers.”

Neither the blockade nor the strict curfew Israeli troops imposed after suicide attacks have proven effective in stopping the terrorism that emanates from this town. And the constant show of force has had a spine-chilling side effect on Jenin’s younger generation that Israel may one day regret.

I’ve never seen so many kids with angry faces. Little kids armed with nasty, yard-long slingshots lurk in the narrow alleys and scamper menacingly across fields of rubble, looking for a target.

“It has become a real ‘kid power’ situation,” says Larry. “No one can stop them, not even the police. The police are frightened of these kids. These are really tough kids and they feel that it’s their right to throw stones.

“They even love to stone us [the UN],” he chuckles. “If they don’t have a green Israeli tank to stone, we’re second best.

“The scary thing is they have no sports figures or people in authority to look up to,” Larry says. “Their only role models are the shahids, the suicide bombers.”

Mustaffa Musleh, a 42-year-old engineer, keeps a tight rein on his five kids, aged four to 14. But he’s worried about the long-term effects of the gunfire and tanks that have become part of their lives.

“In school, the kids like to play shahid . . . what’s going to happen with those kids in 10 years?

“I noticed that my kids were always drawing pictures of tanks, of kids throwing stones, and of funerals, especially funerals of little children,” he says. “I told them I would give them a shekel [20 cents] to draw a rose or a bird. They drew birds . . . dead birds.”

The UN has just finished clearing the rubble of 256 houses destroyed by Israeli bulldozers last April during the fiercest battle of the current intifada. The demolished area covers a full square block of Jenin’s now infamous refugee camp.

It was not easy work. The area was littered with live bombs, grenades, and other ordnance.

Ian Rimell, a 52-year-old Brit, is an explosive-ordnance-disposal expert. Ian’s Scandinavian-funded de-mining team has cleared thousands of “improvised terrorist devices” from the rubble of the camp.

“We found 4668 items, of which 804 were live,” Ian says. “The first load we buried in 30 cubic meters of concrete. Now we blow everything up.

“There was a lot of Israeli stuff, including missiles which they said they didn’t use,” he harrumphs. “But most of it was Palestinian. We found six factory sites with components for making bombs. They were even making their own gunpowder.”

Ian’s team gets called all the time by “people who are not happy about things . . . like two-meter-long pipe bombs planted in the road near their houses.”

“They trust us and want the stuff taken away because they just want a peaceful life,” he says. “We keep their trust. We refuse to tell the Israelis where we find stuff because we’re afraid they might take retribution by knocking down the houses there.”

Ian’s work has been made more dangerous by the kids with slingshots. The kids, looking for salable booty like aluminum window frames, keep taking potshots at the de-miners.

“And there were instances when guys with guns would show up and demand their bombs back,” says Ian, who has done similar work in Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia. “I always give it back—I have a wife and family.”

The refugee camp, home to 13,900 people, is not your typical camp. There are no tents or refugees stirring maize porridge over a campfire. This is a small town of concrete houses piled upon concrete houses in a Casbah-like maze.

And it has a reputation as a badland. Even before the current intifada began two years ago, Jenin police never dared venture into its maze of winding alleys. Relations with the 40,000 inhabitants of Jenin town were fraught with friction.

“There are big bad buggers here and these guys are violent,” says Larry. “There’s no law, no courts, no prisons, and no discipline.

“I get guns pulled on me all the time,” he shrugs. “The way I look helps. If you look as old as I do, no one wants to shoot you.”