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A Day in the Life of a Jerusalem Bus Driver - 2002-07-04

Since the Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, began in September 2000, about 1,500 Palestinians and more than 500 Israelis have been killed. In Israel, many of the deaths have come as a result of suicide bombings. They can occur anywhere, but buses have become one of the bombers' favorite targets, because they hold large numbers of people confined in small spaces.

Since the Intifada began, 12 suicide bombings have been carried out on buses in Israel, and more than 80 people have been killed. Twenty-six of those deaths occurred in two attacks in Jerusalem last month.

The pictures in newspapers and on television screens show the carnage, but they cannot convey the anxiety and tension that are now part of what is, in just about every other part of the world, a routine activity: riding a bus. The tension is particularly severe for those who make a living driving buses. Eli Ben-Shushan, a Jerusalem bus driver, let VOA's Larry James join him on one of his regular routes.

The Jaffa Gate station is a busy place with buses coming and going at all hours of the day and night. On this trip Eli Ben-Shusan is assigned the number 30 bus, which takes him from the walls of the Old City to the new development of Gilo. Before driving out of the station, he quickly checks to make sure no previous passenger has left anything behind, intentionally or unintentionally.

"You see I check the bus [to see] if anybody left me a gift, unwanted gift. That's something that we do normally," he said.

Such precautions are now routine for all bus drivers in Israel. And while Eli Ben-Shushan does not dwell on the risks, he acknowledges he thinks about them.

"I'm worried but somebody has to do it," he explains. "And this is my livelihood - my bread and butter; besides if I'm not gonna be able to be a bus driver I can be a what? A waiter? A waiter can get blown up as well. Or somebody that works in a hotel. You can get blown up in a hotel. Walking down the street. I mean everywhere you go there is that danger of something might happen to you in the entire state of Israel. So why not do a job I like to do and leave the fear in the back of the brain."

Almost miraculously only one driver has been killed in all the suicide bus bombings across Israel. Twenty have been wounded.

Suicide bombers are not always easy to spot. They have been disguised as soldiers or even ultra-Orthodox Jews. Lately they have included women and older men with families. But the majority have been young Palestinians dressed so they easily pass for Israeli teenagers, their hair is bleached and they wear the kind of clothes that are popular with young Israelis. They frequently carry backpacks or guitar cases, both of which are ideal for carrying bombs.

With such disguises how does someone like Eli Ben-Shushan take precautions? How is he able, in a few seconds, to decide between a person who just wants a ride and a person who may be trying to kill him and all his passengers?

"When I come to a bus stop, I glide towards the bus stop. And while I'm gliding I scan the faces. Look. If there is someone that seems suspicious, he's nervous, looking out like he's looking for the cops or something suspicious about him, either that or else in the summer time he's wearing a coat. So I do look for certain people if they are suspicious," he said.

How much protection such precautions provide is debatable. After all, those drivers who allowed bombers to board must have taken similar precautions. And not all suicide bombers board the buses. Sometimes their weapon is a car packed with explosives that are detonated as the car nears a bus. One such attack in early June killed 17 people on a bus that was driving through a place called Armageddon.

Eli Ben-Shushan shrugs off the possibility of that kind of attack as something beyond his control.

Bus number 30 fills with passengers as it winds its way up and down the hills of Gilo, an area Israelis consider a newer part of Jerusalem but Palestinians consider an illegal Israeli settlement on their land.

The dispute over ownership of the area has often turned violent. When the Intifada started, snipers from the nearby Palestinian community of Beit Jala began shooting into Gilo.

"Behind this wall is Beit Jala. [Snipers] would ... shoot at Gilo, so Israel put a concrete wall in order to prevent them from hurting the people here. I don't know if you can see it here but there are some houses that you can see bullet marks on them. I think they're up there," he said.

About 45 minutes after bus number 30 pulled out of Jaffa Gate station it is nearing the end of the route. Two passengers, an older man and an adolescent male companion, are the last ones on the bus and they ask to be allowed to travel a bit beyond the official stop. Eli Ben-Shushan agrees.

Reporter:"You had a large group there earlier. About halfway through the ride there were quite a few people on the bus now we're down to just a few."

Ben-Shushan: "Yeah, it's towards the end. Everybody's gone home."

Reporter:"If you ever have any concerns about safety, when you get to this point of the ride when there are only a few people left on the bus what do you think?"

Ben-Shushan: "Oh. Then it's a relief. Because a terrorist wouldn't do anything when the bus is empty. So if I'm past that then I feel safe. I feel relieved. I'm almost done with my route and everything went OK."

Eli Ben-Shushon stretches and rubs his neck as his drives the empty bus back to the station, having completed his last trip. In a little while he will be heading home to his wife and two young children. It's been a long day. Another one is waiting tomorrow.