The beautiful Eshkol Region nestles in the Western Negev. It is green and wildly lush during rainy winters; summers, brown and dusty but for the oases of civilization and man-made agriculture. Forty kilometers of our small district embrace the Gaza Strip. Ours is the province that has been absorbing rockets and mortars for over a decade; the section of the country where parents worry about Hamas terrorists popping out of a tunnel under our homes, and infiltrations happening on a daily basis, but unreported on the news.
Here, dinner table discussion touches on the expectation of how the next war will bring new concerns of explosive-laden drones or other threats spilling over the border into our communities. We are too tuned in to our surroundings to have the luxury to ignore the fact that the next war is just around the corner. Our neighbors reside in an open-air jail with its two million residents, suffering from nearly 50% unemployment, no drinkable water in their taps and disintegrating sewage systems. Teetering on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, professional analysts estimate that by 2020 — a mere 4 years from now — Gaza’s deteriorating infrastructure will render it uninhabitable.
Yet, everyone who lives in this region knows that the next tragedy will most likely not come from across the border.
The next tragedy-waiting-to-happen in the Western Negev is called the 232. That’s the name of a road. A small, two-lane country road that starts just north of Ashkelon, culminating at the Egyptian border. The southernmost 45 kilometer stretch of this road comprises the one and only artery for the residents of the Eshkol Region, those very same residents who have been living with the dangers described above.
Along with those ever-present dangers, we find ourselves taking our lives in our hands each time we venture outside our communities to drive north or south on our main road. We need to share the 232 with army vehicles (including tank carriers) and huge agricultural equipment clambering along the road in order to move from field to field. Attempting to pass the slow moving leviathans puts the residents on the roads in mortal danger, due to the volume of traffic zipping by in the other direction. Added to that are the nearly 1000 semi-trailers bringing humanitarian aid into Gaza every day on this crumbling two-way thoroughfare.
The blessed abundance of rains this winter, which have the farmers of our region walking around with Cheshire-cat smiles that can’t be wiped off their faces, are also the source of further damage to the overburdened road. Each day the asphalt cracks a bit more leading new potholes to gape open, forcing cars, buses and trucks to swerve violently in order to avoid damaging their tires and chassis. Even while driving at the 80 kph speed limit, a tire can burst when driven over one of these craters, not necessarily there the previous day, and certainly unavoidable when obscured by the vehicle in front of us.
When you look at the road you will discern that the single southbound lane is spotted with these potholes. The lane leading north is far less splattered with the sunken gaps of cement. This is clear evidence of the difference in weight of the trucks hauling their cement, produce and other humanitarian aid and materials to the southern Kerem Shalom border crossing, on their way into Gaza, as opposed to their empty, lighter weight on their journey back home, when they are capable of driving at terrifying speeds.
These trucks need to travel hundreds of kilometers south, from the center and north of the country, to reach a transfer point into Gaza down near the Egyptian border. At that point,the contents need to be carted back north to the center and northern Gaza Strip. The waste of fuel, energy, work hours and time boggles the mind, and gives one pause to wonder whether we are living in the State of Israel or the Land of Chelm.
But putting that absurd wastefulness aside, it’s the threat to life that looms as the major concern of the residents. Despite the recent proclamation that the trucks aren’t allowed on the 232 during the hours when our school buses are making their rounds, there just aren’t enough police to enforce it. Even though residents were promised that the speed limit of 80 kph would be enforced, there are no speed traps along the way, no cameras snapping pictures of offenders, and certainly not enough traffic police.
There have been too many serious accidents. Twenty-three people have lost their lives on this already dangerous road over the past 13 years. And now, only luck prevents a school-bus full of children from being involved in an accident with these gargantuan trucks.
What’s the solution? There are numerous: building a parallel road slated for trucks only, widening the existing road to two lanes in each direction, or revamping other border crossings to make them equally suitable for transferring the goods. The last option is probably the quickest to implement as well as the most time and energy-saving.
At the end of our wits already, residents have begun getting creative, collaborating, getting into our cars at a set time, when the truck-drivers are itching to reach their destinations, clogging up the battered road by driving at a snail’s-paced 20 kph to demonstrate our fear, anger and frustration. The police come, pull the lead cars over to the side, to let the rest pass. Then the next cars take over the crawling lead. And the next…. and the next. The traffic wardens, insufficient in number to police the speed limit, are certainly not capable of speeding up an entire convoy of apprehensive, disgruntled residents.
Ironically, as someone who believes that we need to find a way to rehabilitate Gaza, I am conflicted within myself. On the one hand, I understand how vital it is that food and supplies are shipped by Israel across the border. At the end of the day, it is in no one’s interest to see desperate, hungry Gazans. On the other hand, the lives of our children, our spouses, our neighbors and our friends are put on the line here. Every day. Just by venturing out to work or school or the regional infirmary or the local grocery store.
Whichever option the Roads Authority and the government choose, we can only hope that they do it quick enough. Before the next tragedy happens.