NABLUS, West Bank — Before they set out for work each morning, neighbors Naim Darwish, a Palestinian Muslim, and Jacob Steinmetz, an Israeli Jew, begin their days in quiet meditation.
In the pre-dawn chill, Darwish sets his Muslim prayer rug on the floor facing Mecca. In the soft morning light, Steinmetz throws on his prayer shawl and turns toward Jerusalem. Then the lives of these West Bank neighbors diverge.
It takes Steinmetz about half an hour to drive and hitchhike the 20 miles to the West Bank office where he works as an Israeli government attorney. If he's lucky, it takes Darwish two-and-a-half hours to travel the 30 miles to his computer engineering job at a Palestinian high-tech company in Ramallah.
That two-hour difference illustrates one of the major roadblocks to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that President Bush will try to promote in a Middle East mission that will start on Jan. 9 when he meets with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Israel has erected 550 checkpoints and barriers throughout the West Bank that are intended to ensure the security of Jewish settlers in the land that Israel won from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. But that network of checkpoints makes travel a nightmare for Palestinian residents such as Darwish and hampers hopes of transforming the West Bank into a secure and prosperous quasi-state.
The World Bank recently warned that the checkpoints have "fragmented the economy into disconnected cantons." If the Palestinian economy is ever going to get on its feet, the World Bank and others assert, Israel must remove the checkpoints and allow Palestinians freedom to move around the West Bank.
Israeli leaders have steadfastly resisted such pressure, however, fearful that letting their guard down would allow terrorists to sneak into Israel.
The result has been a two-track transportation system that insulates the 240,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank from the 2.4 million Palestinians there.
Cars with yellow Israeli plates are waved quickly through the checkpoints; those with white or green Palestinian plates must stop for questioning. Israel also prohibits Palestinians from traveling some West Bank roads that are open to Jewish settlers, and the result is that Palestinians such as Darwish and Israelis such as Steinmetz travel side by side in different worlds.
Darwish's daily commute is so long, and the possibility of being turned back at one of the checkpoints is so unpredictable, that he's rented an apartment in Ramallah where he plans to spend several nights a week instead of going home to his family in Nablus.
THE DAILY COMMUTE Jacob Steinmetz and his wife, Debby, both American transplants, live in Maale Levona, a settlement that's home to about 500 Israelis. Israeli soldiers stand guard at the orange metal gate that marks the settlement's boundary.
After morning prayers and a quick bowl of cereal one recent morning, Jacob Steinmetz snapped a 9mm Smith and Wesson to his belt and set out with Debby in the car just before 8 o'clock. A blue and white Star of David dangled from the rearview mirror, and there was a special emergency satellite radio system between the seats.
For Jacob Steinmetz, a 50-year-old father of four, the mile markers on the way to work are bad memories.
"A 17-year-old from Ofra was killed around here," Jacob Steinmetz said at the site of one drive-by shooting.
"This is where there was a big terror attack," he said as the road dipped into a narrow valley where a Palestinian sniper killed seven Israeli soldiers and three civilians in 2002.
On Jan. 29, 2003, Jacob and Debby were heading home from work when they stopped to pick up a woman and her 8-year-old son who were among the scores of Jewish settlers who regularly hitchhike through the West Bank.
As they rounded a hillside north of Ramallah, two men posing as hitchhikers opened fire on their car.
"This is the point where they were standing," Jacob said, pointing to a golden rise dominated by a lone, gray Israeli military watchtower that was erected after the shooting.
A bullet wounded the 8-year-old boy in the back. Another lodged in Jacob's leg. A third shattered his elbow. It took Jacob months of reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation to recover.
Twenty minutes after they left home, Jacob got out of the car outside Givat Assaf, one of 100 illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank that Israel is supposed to remove as part of the new Bush administration peace initiative, and he joined a group of hitchhikers.
Debby took the wheel and headed south toward her job at a Hebrew University film archive in Jerusalem. With her yellow Israeli license plate and the Star of David, she barely slowed down at the Hizme checkpoint in the 25-foot-tall concrete wall that's part of Israel's expanding separation barrier.
Before she got very far, Jacob called to let her know that he'd caught a quick ride to Beit El and was already at his desk. By 8:30, less than 45 minutes after she and Jacob left home, Debby pulled into her parking lot at Hebrew University.
Naim Darwish lives nearby in Nablus, but his commute isn't quite as smooth.
He gets up before dawn to make sure he gets to work on time. He quietly says his prayers and makes tea as his wife and two daughters sleep, and before he sets out at about 6 a.m., the 34-year-old knocks on his parents' door downstairs, awakens his mother and kisses her goodbye.
Darwish's house looks out on the city of Nablus, the site of frequent Israeli military raids. The view hasn't escaped the attention of Israeli soldiers, who Darwish said have seized control of the house nearly three dozen times over the years.
Sometimes the family has been forced to abandon its home for days.
Twice, Darwish said, Israeli soldiers forced him to act as a human shield, an illegal tactic in which a Palestinian is sent to the door of homes in front of an Israeli patrol in case militants inside are preparing an ambush.
This morning, Darwish walked to a nearby taxi stand and paid about 75 cents for the five-minute ride to Huwara, the main Israeli checkpoint in and out of Nablus.
If he had his way, Darwish would take a company car to work each day. But he gave up on the idea after the Israeli military authority rejected his request three times last year.
At Huwara, men had been lining up for hours, stamping their feet in the crisp morning air and waiting for the checkpoint to open. Women, children and elderly men funneled into one line; five other lines were for working-age men only. Darwish almost always picks the second line from the right, which he said seems to move fastest. Vendors moved through the lines selling small plastic cups of sweet tea or coffee.
After a half hour, Darwish made it to the metal turnstile at the front and quickly passed through the metal detector as an Israeli soldier checked his laptop.
For Jacob Steinmetz, the roadblocks and checkpoints across the West Bank are an unfortunate necessity.
"The thing is, the terrorists caused it," Jacob Steinmetz said. "If they get rid of roadblocks, somebody gets killed."
"My belief is that these are political checkpoints," Darwish said. "It's not military. It's not much for their security. We are divided up in cantons."
After he cleared the checkpoint, Darwish jumped on a commuter bus taking a dozen travelers a few miles to a second checkpoint known as Zaatara. Here, everyone was forced to get off the bus and wait another 15 minutes while Israeli soldiers checked their IDs before they got back on board.
About the time that Debby Steinmetz dropped Jacob off and headed to her job, Darwish was standing in the morning cold and watching soldiers wave cars with Israeli license plates through while others questioned Palestinian taxi drivers with green license plates.
Then his bus headed south, past the turnoff for Maale Levona. After a few miles, the bus took a snaking, stomach-churning route to Ramallah. On the outskirts of the city, the bus hit traffic that was backed up at another Israeli checkpoint, where a gruff soldier stepped aboard and randomly singled out passengers to check their IDs.
Then the bus was on its way again, and after two-and-a-half hours, Darwish got off and walked the rest of the way to his office. He got there around 8:30, at about the same time that Debby Steinmetz arrived at Hebrew University after her 45-minute drive.
Darwish doesn't like to talk about politics, but he's not optimistic that the latest peacemaking effort will make things better.
"There will be no Palestinian state," he said. "The Israelis will not allow it because it's against their beliefs in a greater Israel. Mark my words: It will not happen."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007