Sara Hussein, AFP
Last updated: 15 November, 2011

Palestinian “freedom riders” arrested

Six Palestinians were arrested on Tuesday as they tried to enter Jerusalem on an Israeli bus in a novel bid to protest what they call Israel’s discriminatory policies in the West Bank.

The six activists, five men and one woman, said their protest was inspired by the “Freedom Riders,” American civil rights activists who rode to the south in the 1960s to carry out work against segregation and racial discrimination.

In what appears to be a first, they gathered at a West Bank bus stop by the Psagot settlement and waited for an Israeli bus to pick them up, then tried to enter Jerusalem.

Palestinians in the West Bank ordinarily require a special permit to enter the Holy City, unlike Israeli settlers living in the territory who can reach Jerusalem on Israeli buses that travel on Israeli-controlled roads.

Israel says this measure is necessary to prevent suicide bombers or other would-be attackers from entering Jerusalem, but Palestinians accuse the Jewish state of an “apartheid” regime that includes “segregated” bus and road systems, open to settlers but not Palestinian West Bank residents.

“These buses and this whole system is discriminatory to Palestinians,” said activist Fadi Quran, as he waited at the bus stop, surrounded by a scrum of journalists and bemused Israeli settlers and soldiers.

Clutching a sign reading “We shall overcome,” he said the goal of the protest was “to desegregate the whole West Bank.”

The protest presented an unusual scene — six Palestinians wearing black-and-white chequered keffiyeh scarves and T-shirts emblazoned with “freedom” and “justice” — surrounded by dozens of journalists and a few Israeli commuters.

The first few buses simply refused to stop for the group, though it was difficult to tell whether they drove on because of the media mosh-pit or to deny the Palestinians service.

Eventually, after the arrival of border guards and police, who stood by without intervening, a bus stopped and let the activists on.

Inside the coach, operated by the Egged public transport provider, a handful of Israeli passengers looked on as the activists took their seats and unfurled a Palestinian flag.

“They say they can’t ride the bus, but you see it’s not right because they are in the bus now,” said 70-year-old Abraham, a Psagot resident who declined to give his last name.

“If they don’t want trouble, why not let them? But if I want to go in a bus in Beit Hanina (in Arab east Jerusalem), I will find a knife in my back,” he added.

“We have to be careful, we have the experience of the bombs, the knives, the terror. But if they are good, we like them, why not let them ride the bus?”

Other passengers avoided interacting with the activists, despite their attempts to engage them, but grew increasingly annoyed as the coach reached the Hizme checkpoint, where dozens of border guard and police officials were waiting.

With the bus pulled over, the Israeli passengers got off, leaving the activists to try to explain themselves to the police who got on.

“This is Palestinian land, not Israeli land, we are Palestinians going to Jerusalem and we will not get off this bus,” Quran said, as police told him his Palestinian identity card would not allow him entry.

“Why don’t you ask the settlers for a permit?” said activist Badie Dweik.

“I am the law, you are not the law,” one officer replied, giving the activists a chance to walk off the bus, which they refused, before ordering them forcibly removed.

Before the protest, the activists said they expected to be arrested, but pledged the action would be repeated.

“We expect this to be the first of many waves,” activist Huwaida Arraf said. “We have many more people who want to ride.”