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Monday, November 08, 2004

Watermelons and Bombs (Cornell Sun)

by Benjamin Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer

HAIFA, Israel -- Riding an Israeli bus can be a harrowing experience. You get on, look for the seat nearest the back, and sit down. With each stop, you nervously inspect the oncoming passengers. You tell yourself that the odds of your being blown up are so extremely slim that your worry is unwarranted, yet are still haunted by images of charred-out buses from the nightly news. In short, you feel as if you are playing Russian roulette.

Knowing how apoplectic I would get taking Israeli buses, I was curious to hear the testimony of an Israeli bus driver and learn about life in Israel's most dangerous profession. And on the three-hour nighttime bus ride from Jerusalem to Haifa, I got my chance.

The driver had turned out the lights, scrapping my reading plans, so I made my way down the aisle to speak with him.

I had found the right man.

'Last January,' he began, 'an Arab man boarded my bus carrying a watermelon in a paper bag -- a popular bomb-smuggling tactic. I yelled 'TERRORIST,' and a soldier on board rushed over and subdued him until the police came. Amazingly, the bomb didn't detonate.'

The bus driver, Tamir Davidovich, lives with his family in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Shmuel. On the night I spoke with him his wife was having a C-section with their third daughter.

Delving further into his episode, Davidovich would interrupt himself to yell out the names of the Palestinian cities we were passing -- 'Tulkarem! ... Qalqilya!' -- visible to our right beyond the fence being built to keep out suicide bombers. We were driving up Israel's 'thin waist,' seven miles at the narrowest point between its Mediterranean coast and the 'Green Line,' Israel's unofficial border with the West Bank. During the day, you can see each from opposite windows. Asked whether he worries about himself, Tamir answered: 'I can't control the future. And if I constantly worry, I'll drive myself crazy. So, I don't worry.'

'But, you ask, how was I so sure he was a terrorist?' said Tamir, still basking in his heroic moment. 'Watermelons aren't in season in January!'

Davidovich brushed off the incident and went to work the next day. Reading The Onion's mock news item -- 'Israeli Bus Driver Demands Raise' -- I thought of him.