If you drive fast, they cannot see you. The dust from the desert road will cover the car, and the soldiers will not be able to make out what is moving.
This is one of the rules the smugglers in the southern parts of the West Bank adhere to. In the opening sequences of the brilliant documentary, The Devil’s Drivers, we meet Hamouda, while he is speeding through the desert landscape with his human cargo. The film is about Palestinians that sneak into Israel without work permits in order to make a living. It is risky because getting caught means prison.
In 2002 the Israelis began construction of a 500-mile wall around the Palestinian territories. Only around Jenba, a tiny village in the southern end of the West Bank, the wall has not been completed. This is where Hamouda and his cousin, Ismail, are operating. They are part of a small community of smugglers, brave men that take the workers from their homes to different workplaces in and around the large Israeli cities, and that work is a constant gamble, playing cat and mouse with the everpresent Israeli patrols in the vicinity.
«The army is faster than us, and they can pass through their own checkpoints. Their way is also shorter. But I know every corner», says Hamoud laconically while he is steering his ramshackle car along the desert roads.
The system works with scouts that are in constant connection with the smugglers – telling them where the soldiers are, and how to avoid them.
The film was made over a period of several years. It follows the ups and downs of the men in this risky trade, and in that way, it paints a bleak picture of a hard life in one of the poorest corners of the West Bank.
When Hamouda was young, he went to the city of Ramallah. He found work and made some money. Life was reasonably good, and Ramallah was safe. But he made only 400 USD, not enough to feed his family so he was forced to return to Yatta, his home town. He owns his house so there is no rent to pay. But he has two children, and he works to give them a better future.
If you drive fast, they cannot see you.
60.000 Palestinians work in Israel illegally. They have no real alternative. «If we work, we eat. If we do not work, we don’t eat», says one of them to the camera. They risk their lives, but they survive.
In the occupied territories, you can make 12 USD per day. And it is very difficult to find a job. Once you get into Israel you can earn four times more. Work conditions are harsh. Most workers go for 10-day stints or longer, and they sleep wherever they can. One worker tells us, that he prefers a nearby park because at the building sites there are police patrols at night. But altogether that part of the traffic is relatively safe. The big risk is on the way back and forth.
Hamouda compares himself to a soldier. When he leaves for work, he is not sure he will make it home again. This happens to Ismail. One early morning the soldiers catch him, his car is being confiscated and he gets a prison sentence.
Upon release, he takes up smuggling again. But it is even more nerve-wracking doing this while on probation, so after a while, he goes clean, as he puts it. He finds a way to buy an old truck and goes into transport and construction. The pay is worse, but he gets peace of mind and spends time with his family.
The film has the white-knuckle of suspense while it takes us in for a close-up of life under occupation. So many opportunities are non-existent, and people try to make the best out of what they have.
The army is putting constant pressure on the population. At one stage they force a village to put up a gate, and they threaten to demolish houses and homes if the villagers let the smugglers through. And still, it continues, out of lack of a realistic alternative.
«I should never have worked in smuggling,» says another smuggler, Issa. «That was my life’s mistake. Israel never forgets and never forgives. The proverb says, the criminal gets away ninety-nine percent. But the one time he gets caught he pays for everything.»
This is a highly recommended and important film about basic human desires to survive and make a living. Despite almost impossible conditions camera work is excellent, and creates images of people, conditions and situations that will stay etched in your mind for a very long time.