Bus drivers on the Palestinian-Israeli front line

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

A compact man with a warm smile, Plaut wears his own gun when he drives, but acknowledges that it would be little use against an explosives belt. The tool he relies on most often is instinct, which has led him to drive by people waiting at bus stops.

"Sometimes you don't get a good feeling, the way a man looks, or looks at the bus, the way he holds himself," Plaut explains. "You see something in his face or eyes that gives you a heavy feeling and you have to decide very quickly. I have a wife and kids and it's not just you, sometimes you have 15 to 20 people on the bus not wanting you to stop."

For all the tension and suspicion in his job, Plaut still believes there's little difference between him and most Palestinians. "Most Arab people want to live in peace, raise their kids, earn their salary, go home at the end of the day," he muses.

For Kadosh, those views reflect foolishness borne of inexperience. "Before the bombing, I used to have a lot of Arab friends," he says. "Now, no more. They're like snakes in the grass."

There have been other changes. Now he worries constantly, sees a psychiatrist, can't take crowded places and thinks everything through three or four times before he makes a move. He won't allow his four kids near buses and drives his wife around the bend with his anxieties. "Everything has changed," he says, job included. He is still with Egged, but behind a desk.

Though he lives in a settlement, Kadosh sees no connection between attacks like the one on his bus and Palestinian anger about Israeli communities built in the territories. "This is Jewish land - it says so in the Bible," he says, rapping a table for emphasis.

Police dubbed Kadosh's attack a miracle, because no one was killed. Of the nine people hurt, Kadosh was the most grievously wounded. "If you want to see the glass half full, I'm very lucky," he says with a bitter smile.

Dressed head-to-toe in denim, the 21-year Egged veteran moves with careful deliberation, a legacy of injuries from that day. One kitchen cupboard hides a pharmaceutical cornucopia, an option he prefers to the back surgery doctors urged him to undergo. As he tells his story, he glowers from the stress of revisiting the events of that day.

He was rolling gently towards a bus stop early on the morning of March 27 last year. Full of chirping schoolkids, the bus was warm from the dense press of bodies. Kadosh watched the car in front of him stop. A woman leapt out, ran into a store. Out of the corner of his eye he registered a white car across the street. Later, investigators would discover it had been packed with 103 pounds. of explosives that the militant group Islamic Jihad triggered with a cell phone.

Kadosh's attention was drawn back to the woman returning to her car.

Suddenly, as if in a cartoon, the doors to her car flew off. "Then the woman and the man who had been driving were flying through the air too," he recalls, sailing his hand in front of his face. The sky turned black. The front of the bus flew up. There was fire and a terrible roar that he felt in every bone in his body.

He remembers an acrid burning smell, the sound of children crying for their mothers and his own voice, cutting through the din, yelling at people to get off because there had been a bomb. His memory stops there. But he does remember that he was the last off the bus, perhaps because he hasn't stepped foot on one since. He says he never will again.

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