Ten-year-old Zidan Fatayer sits astride the metal barrier running alongside the highway linking north to south of the Gaza Strip, in the hope of a car stopping to pick him up. Yet, Zidan is not hitchhiking. Should a car stop, he won't pay for the ride, he'll get paid. And all for a trip of only about 500 meters (yards).
In this impoverished corner of the Palestinian territories, crushed by the weight of a nearly nine-month-old Israeli blockade and dotted with Israeli army roadblocks, life's complications create strange opportunities. This is one such opening.
Lone drivers are routinely turned back, invariably suspected of being potential suicide bombers who might try to ram their vehicles into a bunker. But drivers with passengers have a better shot at getting through.
That's where Zidan and his friends, or rather competitors, come in. For the going rate of one shekel (about 25 cents), they rent themselves out to total strangers as passengers. To ride 500 hair-raising, stomach-knotting meters up the road.
This stretch is often raked by gunfire. The trees and houses on both sides have been razed by Israeli bulldozers. And you can never be sure what the driver is up to.
"One time I was picked up by a Mercedes, whose driver wanted to jump the queue of cars waiting at the roadblock. The soldiers started shooting, and I was so frightened I felt like I was frozen to my seat," Zidan says.
Zidan doesn't say how that trip turned out, but awaits his next journey with serenity. At 19, Mohamad Arafat is the oldest among these "rent-a-kids," often queue-jumping to catch a stopping car.
Whether he did on the particular day he recalls he didn't say, but his was an equally frightening experience. "A month ago I was riding in a truck that broke down in the middle of the road. The soldiers shot out the tires, which exploded. People in cars around us were hurt, and the ambulances came. It took us hours to repair the tires and get out of there.
"Of course I was frightened," Mohammad says, "but I went right back the next day." The reasons are clear. These boys can feed their families on what they make, their fathers or the fathers of neighbors put out of work by the blockade.
"Sometimes we make six trips a day, sometimes 10, even a dozen," says 15-year-old Omar Fayed. "The drivers are sympathetic; sometimes they give us 3 shekels." On average, the boys say, they take home 15-20 shekels a day. The record so far is 40 shekels. "I buy food for my family and cigarettes for my father," Omar says.
And with the fragile ceasefire that took effect last week, the soldiers have removed a few of the concrete blocks in the road and a bit more traffic is getting through. So there a few more trips, and a few more shekels.
And besides, it isn't always terrifying, says Zidan. "The soldiers know what we're doing, and they don't care. Sometimes they even recognize us. Once when the car was stopped (at the checkpoint), one of them laughed and asked me how much I had made." ― (AFP, Gaza Strip)
by Sebastien Blanc
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)