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Bus drivers on the Palestinian-Israeli front line

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2003



JERUSALEM

The memories are seared into Dudu Kadosh's mind, replayed every night as he struggles for sleep. A roar that swallowed all sound, the reek of burnt rubber and charred metal, children's cries.

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Mr. Kadosh survived a massive bombing that flung his Jerusalem bus skyward, like a toy tossed by an angry child, and then slammed it to the ground. "I will carry those pictures with me for the rest of my life," he says.

Civilian deaths punctuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with grim regularity. Sunday, two bombings killed at least 15 people and injured more than 30 people in Tel Aviv near the old central bus station. These were the first bombings in an Israeli city since Nov. 21, when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing himself and 11 passengers.

In Israel, the line of engagement is blurred and mobile, leaving buses ripe for attack. This strands the men who pilot them in an uneasy limbo between the mundane routine of their jobs and the constant fear that the next stop may be their last.

"You're going to work in the morning, and you're not sure if you'll get back at the end of the day," says Roni Plaut, who drives one of Israel's deadliest bus routes.

Kadosh and his colleague Mr. Plaut work for Egged, the Goliath of Israeli bus companies. Egged, formerly based in the bus station bombed Sunday, has a 4,100-strong bus fleet that covers a total 620,000 miles of asphalt a day. Since the current conflict began just over two years ago, Palestinians have targeted more than 200 Egged buses with bullets, stones, Molotov cocktails, roadside booby traps, explosive-laden cars and human bodies wired for devastation. Between 17 to 20 of those assaults were suicide bombings. All told, attacks on Israeli buses have killed about 110 people and wounded over 500.

While the shock of each strike is new, each contains a historical echo. In the fighting between Arabs and Jews that preceded Israel's creation, both sides attacked buses and bus stations. Israelis mark the beginning of what they call the War of Independence from the day of a 1947 machine gun assault on a bus that left five Jews dead.

Since September 2000, one Egged driver has died and 21 have been injured. In April 2002, the company bolstered regular police security with the Security Unit for Public Transportation. Paid for by Egged and the government, the unit is made up of 400 guards who patrol stations, ride the buses and follow them in separate vehicles.

"But they're not on all routes or on all buses," says Plaut, who drives a route in northern Israel that skirts the Green Line, the porous border between the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel. It is easy for attackers to slip into Israel through some of the Israeli-Arab towns bordering the Green Line. From there, they simply board a bus.

"We used to joke that it was the safest route," Plaut says, since it also caters to Arab citizens of Israel. "We'd say, 'They'd never blow up Arabs.'"

He shrugs. "Then they did."

Four bus attacks on the route's main road that left no less than 43 dead. "Yes, I'd rather not be doing it," Plaut says, "but this is what I do. It is very difficult these days, lots of pressure. My wife is very, very worried" as is the oldest of his three children, a teenage son who is old enough to understand the risks of his father's job.

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