Hitchhiking in Israel has always been a curious phenomenon which exemplifies the ‘big family’ atmosphere within the country. It has its own culture appropriate to each area and the local word for a random car that stops for hitchhikers is known as a ‘tremp,’ not a hitch.
Many times I’ve stood at main junctions, say, in Gush Etzion twenty minutes south of Jerusalem, and waited for a tremp instead of taking the bus. Deciding whether to take a tremp over the bus means weighing different factors such as how much time and money do I have or what’s the weather like? Once the decision is made to tremp, the game begins.
Traffic in Gush Etzion consists of a fruity mix of Arab and Jewish motorists. The population is usually distinguished by the color of the license plates with Israeli plates being yellow with black numbers and Palestinian plates being green and white. Other color codes are black plates with white numbers for IDF vehicles and UN vehicles have white plates with black numbers. Occasionally you’ll see Arabs driving in a car with an Israeli license plate, which means they are carrying Israeli identity cards.
Just last week I was waiting for a ride at a ‘trempiada,’ the side of the road where trempists stand, when a car with Israeli plates pulled up next to a Jewish man with a long beard and myself.
When the window rolled down I said to the driver who looked almost 17, “Jerusalem?” and the driver replied sternly, “Moneet (taxi).”
I curiously turned to the bearded man as if I didn’t hear the driver correctly and the bearded man said, “He’s an Arab and he wants money for the ride.”
As we declined, the driver sped off looking for another passenger.
TREMPING can be an art and trempist need to know where to stand. Due to the intifada, Arabs and Jews don’t mingle as freely as they used to, even in Israel’s pre-67 borders. Areas over the green line each have separate informal pick up and drop off spots for both groups. In places like Gush Etzion, Jews and Arabs generally have their own separate buses. The case used to be more relaxed before suicide bombers helped put a clamp on Arab usage of the Israeli public transportation system. However, it’s clear both peoples keep their distance if not for security then simply for fear of the other. When all is said and done, knowing where to stand is key to the tremping experience but ‘standing’ alone doesn’t open doors.
The arm and position of the hand is extremely important: With the body tilted towards the road, the arm must flow like a branch in the wind while the wrist levels off. Then, the most important factor of all takes place: positioning the index finger. If the finger points down at a 45-degree angle, that signals a ride to anywhere outside the Gush. If the finger points straight down, that signals a ride somewhere inside the Gush. Personally, if I’m going to Jerusalem, sometimes I point my finger up, hinting to its spiritual nature (even though the Gush is higher than the capital). Drivers will use the same signals from within their vehicles to communicate with trempists at the trempiadas they are approaching.
Recently I noticed an American teenager headed for Jerusalem taunting motorists with the American style ‘thumb’ gesture. Without embarrassing him, I nudged him to use his index finger while giving him tips on who not to take a ride from.
Hitchhiking in today’s Israel is all about how the hand stretches in and out when the plates of the approaching vehicles are in clear view. Even if you the Jew happen to forget what colors to look for and a green and white plate is coming your way, chances are it won’t make a difference. Generally, no Jew will stop for an Arab and no Arab will stop for a Jew (unless you’re the Arab guy I mentioned above or a friend of mine who once tremped with Arabs from Jerusalem to Efrat but those are rare occurrences). Due to attempted and successful kidnappings of innocent trempists in the past, it is almost unheard of for a Jew to be tremping with an Arab.
WITH THE EASING of restrictions on Palestinians over the past year and a half, many more Arabs ride the main roads and there is an influx of Arab taxi services. The Arab mini bus taxis are the traditional yellow/orange while the cab cars are white or odd shades of green. There are also the BMW Arab three section-seater cabs just like the ones in the movies that have room for the whole family and space in the back for luggage and chickens. These usually tend to be traditional yellow/orange. The Arab cabs and taxi services just roll by their Jewish neighbors/co-trempists while exchanging looks of curiosity through their windows.
At night, Jews are more reluctant to stop for hitchhikers unless they are leaving from within a settlement. Since most settlements have fences around them, giving an Arab a ride from within is very unlikely at night. Arabs work in some settlements but they generally vacate before sun set.
Several years ago when a severe wave of Palestinian terrorism was raging in Israel, tremping outside settlements ceased. Most people traveled in the bulletproof buses provided by Egged, Israel’s national bus line. At the time, the bus company lowered their fares to encourage people to ride more often. Now that roadside shootings, which killed mothers, fathers, and children, have mainly ceased, people have enthusiastically returned to the trempiadas while the price for a ride on Egged has risen modestly.
In the end, the choice between taking a bus or tremping comes down to some very basic factors:
1. The bus ride is smooth, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and in most cases takes me to where I want to go. Tremps may be hot and sticky, cold and raw.
2. Tremping can be faster and more efficient, but only a lucky tremp will take you directly to your destination. Otherwise, you may have to take another bus once in Jerusalem or walk a distance.
3. Sometimes the driver’s taste in music may not mirror your own which could lead to 20 minutes of ear retching pain. On a bus, chances are you’ll only hear the top of the hour news or a strange cell phone ring.
One last thought. Will Arabs and Jews ever travel together again in mutual trust? It’s hard to say when events happen in Israel on a daily basis. Perhaps a drive-in movie theater for both sets of plates would be a way of easing the tensions and slowly bringing people together.
I can you see it now.
The location: the Judean desert.
The movie: Casablanca