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IN TWO WORLDS

Delivering on a Friendship to Make Sure Mail Gets Through

A Palestinian courier relies heavily on a Samaritan and his special status.

October 24, 2002|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

NABLUS, West Bank -- Fadi Touqan, blue-eyed and 25 years old, scans Rafidia Street. No tanks. The coast is clear. He dashes to his office, furls the metal gates and once again is in business. Briefly.

Fadi is the DHL man in Nablus. He defies the odds of military blockade and shoot-to-kill curfews to run the international courier service in this West Bank city, delivering and receiving envelopes, packages and other special mail -- a lifeline for many Palestinians who need money, medicine, bank drafts and passports.

He couldn't do it without the help of a good Samaritan. Literally.

The Samaritan is Yaakov Mrhiv, a member of an ancient people who claim to descend from tribes that populated the northern part of the kingdom of Israel nearly 3,000 years ago.

Half the world's 650 remaining Samaritans live today in Mt. Gerizim, their ancestral village on a hill above Nablus, where they celebrate Passover and heed the Torah, but speak Arabic and have both Israeli and Palestinian nationality. Fadi and Yaakov are friends from childhood.

Because Yaakov is a Samaritan, he enjoys the privilege -- unique in this land these days -- of being able to move freely inside Israel, inside Palestinian territory, and in between the two.

For more than two years, Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in a death grip, a conflict that has ravaged the two societies and driven them further apart than at any time in their recent history.

Still, a rare handful of people reach over the barriers and across the divides, finding common ground or common cause, for reasons that are sometimes political and ideological, and sometimes simply pragmatic. Their lonely, largely unheralded efforts are exceptions in a world steeped ever more in hatred and mistrust.

Fadi and Yaakov have teamed in a kind of relay race against the rigors of the war that surrounds and entraps them.

Because a Palestinian state does not exist, DHL must work through Israel. Packages from the Palestinian territories that arrive at the Israeli airport are separated and given an extra security check.

Gliding through Israeli army checkpoints virtually unchallenged, Yaakov can travel to Jerusalem, where he picks up deliveries at a main DHL office. He ferries the shipment back to Mt. Gerizim and, when it's safe, jaunts down to Nablus where Fadi awaits.

Business, of course, is not what it used to be.

From Israel and within the West Bank or Gaza Strip, same-day delivery has stretched to three days. An envelope on Fadi's desk during a recent visit had traveled from Sri Lanka to Tel Aviv, 3,400 miles, in three days -- and then taken an additional week to get to Nablus from Tel Aviv, 30 miles.

The address said:

"Nablus, Palestine. Nablus, Israel. Nablus, Palestine, Via Israel."

Another envelope from Guatemala took 28 days to reach Nablus.

"This is not exactly express mail," Fadi said.

Since Israeli forces reoccupied the West Bank last spring and put most of the population under virtual house arrest, Fadi can open the office only occasionally, and then for just a few hours. Deliveries are haphazard and depend on luck, especially for mail destined to outlying villages.

His compact DHL truck, with the company's maroon-colored logo, got stuck in Jenin. He was making a pickup there when an Israeli army invasion suddenly closed the road. And while he could return to Nablus over a circuitous route, he had to leave the vehicle behind.

"It's very, very, very difficult," Fadi said. Even when deliveries get through, rising costs put the service out of reach for many Palestinians. "It's become very expensive for Palestinians. They need to eat, not send packages."

His disheveled office is decorated with DHL posters in Hebrew and English: "For you, we always go the distance" and "The team is you" -- and one with a verse from the Koran.

For a while, some people tried to get supplies and mail in and out of Nablus using donkeys. But Fadi turned to his friend the Samaritan, whose people have been traversing and doing business in these hills for millenniums.

"I trust Yaakov," Fadi said. "I know him from before."

And Yaakov, whose job as a contractor securing Palestinian labor for Israeli construction crews has completely dried up, says he's glad to help, even if he risks getting shot every time he drives from Nablus to Jerusalem.

"I feel it is my duty to help him in his work," said Yaakov, 27. "Of course, there's money in it for me, too. But I can't take a large amount from him. Fadi is my friend."

Yaakov has a few tricks for the road, which has been a venue for ambushes of Jews by Palestinians, and of Palestinians by Jewish settlers. His car's license plates are Israeli -- yellow. But to ward off a Palestinian sniper's bullets, he flashes his lights and honks his horn at particularly dangerous points, like a secret handshake.

And when he approaches Israeli army checkpoints, he will call out his window, "Samaritan!" It clears the way.

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