Driving a WAZE on the West Bank

When I rented a car in Jerusalem, I figured the only thing I had to worry about, driving alone in Israel for the first time, was encountering notoriously reckless Israeli drivers. I quickly realized that the “woman” speaking on my phone, the voice of the GPS App WAZE, was leading me through the West Bank. Apparently, this was the shortest route to Beersheva, where I was picking up my husband, after his IDF volunteer service, for a weekend in the Negev.

I have been in Israel enough to recognize that entering Bet Lechem (Bethlehem) Road was not the route toward Tel Aviv that would have led me to the highway south, through the middle of the country, I expected to take. But I was late, thanks to the process of renting the car — the line ahead of me included a customer whose Groupon had not been included on his reservation and a man who insisted on photographing his rental from all angles to coordinate with the assessment of the rental company on previous damages. While waiting, I called my husband, who said, “What? You haven’t even left yet?”

I have used WAZE successfully from North Carolina to the North Sea coast in England. Its warnings of traffic, accidents, and speed traps had served me well. The latest publicized terrorist attacks in Israel had been one-on-one stabbing incidents, not assaults on cars. Leaving Jerusalem, there was plenty of nearby traffic, too much to figure out where to stop and potentially re-program — and enough to assure me I was not alone.

As I forged on, however, passing signs toward Hebron and beyond, I came onto two-lane highway. I find it nerve-wracking enough just driving on this kind of road, especially a winding and hilly route like this, with few opportunities to pass. Yet, the kilometer signs for Beersheva indicated I was making good time. The road was deserted in some areas or sparsely populated by cars carrying families with women wearing a variant of the traditional head coverings. There were also a few bearing people wearing traditional Jewish religious garb. The scariest time was being wedged between a slow-moving truck and a carful of young men in a battered Mercedes “tailgating” in its original definition, not the party in a stadium parking lot with beer and brats. I breathed a sigh of relief when they turned off toward some town. A few villages seemed to be wholly Arab, bereft of either Jews or soldiers, but I passed through with no problems.

Finally, I came to a checkpoint that indicated I was re-entering non-West Bank Israel. There were two lanes toward the attended booth, one mainly of cars that I first entered and the other mostly trucks that I switched to, because it seemed to go faster. As I approached the young woman in the booth, she waved me through the opened gate. Profiling, I suppose. Just as I had profiled the motorists in the cars along the way.

Gratefully, I reunited with my “soldier” about ten minutes later. The drive had taken less than an hour and a half.

“You got here sooner than I expected,” he said.

“I just drove through the West Bank,” I muttered.

“You did what? Am I glad I didn’t know while you were doing it. I was nervous enough just that you were on the roads here.”

I blamed WAZE.

Little did I know that I was not the first driver to be (mis)led by this Israeli-invented, now Google-owned app, as news reports I found later confirmed. Nor that there is a setting “Keep within areas under Israeli authority,” but I am not sure exactly what that means. Would that have kept me from the West Bank? A younger cousin later told me that one can pick the longer, alternative route. But the WAZE maps and written directions on my rented Israeli mobile phone only appeared in Hebrew, while the verbal instructions spoke English. My Hebrew might have been good enough to figure out the safer route, or I could have asked at the rental office. But getting on the road as fast as possible was a priority.

I make no political statements here. I have some Israeli relatives who vociferously denounce “occupation” and others who defend their soldier son’s nighttime raids in Gaza — both at the same dinner table — and I am not sure these two positions are mutually exclusive. I do not live in Israel and, while I have opinions, they shift with the wind when I am there. It is SO complicated.

But when, two days later, I read that a Jewish father and son were shot to death, en route to a family gathering near Beersheva, by Palestinians who overtook their car and opened fire, I recognized the name of the nearest town as one I had driven through. This tragic incident occurred at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon.

I had passed that way a mere 25 hours earlier.

Jews quote from Proverbs 3:17–18 in calling the Torah “a tree of life…whose ways are ways of righteousness and all its paths are peace.”

If only WAZE could find that route.

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