Without seatbelts in the West Bank

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A visitor to the West Bank who takes one of the ubiquitous yellow Ford Transit “servis” taxis from one city to another may notice an odd ritual.

Palestinians do not like to use seatbelts, even in their own private vehicles, never mind in public transportation. But in the collective servis taxis that form the backbone of travel in the West Bank, from Ramallah to Nablus, for example, everyone begins to buckle up as the vehicle nears the outskirts of the city.  The driver may remind laggards to comply, but usually this is not necessary. Everyone seems to understand the drill spontaneously.

This behavior is not because Palestinians suddenly become safety-conscious as they leave their cities.  Rather, it reflects the hard fact on the ground that between every population center in the West Bank nominally administered by the Palestinian Authority, lies a zone of Israeli-administered Area C, where occupation security forces man the checkpoints and Israeli law is applied.

A servis operator who fails to enforce seatbelt use on his passengers risks a crippling civil fine at the checkpoint.  This is also a fact of life for Palestinian cars and buses traveling outside of Area A.

Passing the last Israeli checkpoint south of Nablus at Huwara, the passengers and the driver all unbuckle in unison as if on unspoken command as they enter the city.  For Palestinians, seatbelts are a burden imposed by Israeli occupation, not a safety choice.

Another new reality since my last visit to Palestine a few years ago is the enforcement of Israeli public smoking regulations in Palestinian East Jerusalem.  Restaurants and cafes everywhere now post no smoking signs and the proprietors report that there are heavy fines on businesses which fail to comply.

It cannot be overstated what a blow this is to the cultural habits of Palestinian café life, where cigarettes – or water pipes — have always been inseparable from drinking coffee or tea, and conversation or card playing in the traditional male gathering places.  Many of the coffee shopsare nearly empty today. Few of them, especially in the old city, have any appreciable outside space, and in any case it’s too cold to sit outside in the wintertime.

Now this is not to argue that seatbelts are somehow bad or that smoking in public spaces is a good thing.  But in each case these are restrictions imposed on Palestinians by a governing regime for which they, as non-citizens,  are not allowed to vote.

They may be small inconveniences compared to the harsher rigors of occupation, such as arrests, land confiscations and house demolitions, but they are also reminders of a lack of sovereignty and political agency in the small matters of daily life.  Palestinians are not allowed to forget about occupation even if they might sometimes wish to withdraw from politics.

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So, we’ll take your land, shoot you, blow up your houses, beat you up imprison you without trial, exploit your resources and steal your taxes but you better buckle up for the sake of safety! It is to laugh.