Palestinian 'freedom riders' board Israeli buses in protest

Drawing what they say are parallels between Israeli policies in the West Bank and the laws in the Jim Crow American South, Palestinian activists emulating the 'freedom riders' of 1961 attempted to ride into Jerusalem on an Israeli bus today.

By , Correspondent

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    Palestinian activists describing themselves as 'freedom riders' wait at a bus station outside the West Bank Jewish settlement of Psagot, near Ramallah, on Tuesday. The six Palestinians boarded a bus used by Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, but the end of the line was Israeli police detention.
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Decked-out in T-shirts bearing slogans such as “dignity,” “freedom,” and “justice,” and wearing the symbolic black and white Palestinian kaffiyeh scarves, six Palestinian activists waited at a bus stop this afternoon with a group of Israeli settlers.

The group planned to board an Israeli bus just outside the Israeli settlement of Kokhav Ya'akov, mimicking the African-American "freedom riders" who rode interstate buses through the American South to protest against segregation 50 years ago. While Palestinians are not explicitly barred from riding the Israeli buses, they enter parts of the West Bank and Israel that most Palestinians cannot enter.

“Under Israeli law we are forbidden to visit Jerusalem. It’s a racist law like the Jim Crow laws and the apartheid laws in South Africa,” says Bassal Araj, a 27-year-old pharmacist whose family is originally from a small village near Jerusalem. “We want to show the world that this is not a country of democracy. It is a country of apartheid and injustice.”

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Also dubbing themselves the “freedom riders,” the activists hoped to highlight what they say are Israel’s policies of occupation and segregation, similar to those imposed on African-Americans before the civil rights movement upended the infamous Jim Crow laws. The bus companies Egged and Veolia carry those living in Israeli settlements in the West Bank into Israel, stopping primarily in locations that Palestinians are not allowed to access.

The activists say the buses are merely a symbol of a wider prohibition: the ban on West Bank Palestinians entering Jerusalem.

“There are about 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank that are not allowed to enter East Jerusalem and Israel except with a special permission,” says Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli rights organization focused on Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel took over and later annexed East Jerusalem after conquering the area in the 1967 war. Most Palestinian residents of the West Bank are now barred from entering East Jerusalem, and they say this is akin to segregation.

“East Jerusalem is occupied territory under international law,” says Ms. Bashi. “And folks from the West Bank should have the right to access services there – schools, universities, hospitals.”

Several buses shuttling Israeli settlers and visitors into Israel drove past the crowd of activists, journalists, and settlers waiting at the bus stop in front of a picture of Meir Kahane, an American-Israeli extremist who preached the expulsion of Arabs from Israel. It was unclear if they were specifically avoiding the activists or if they were simply deterred by the unusually large crowd.  

“What are they doing here?” asks Sabina, a resident of the nearby settlement Psagot who declined to give her last name, referring to the Palestinian activists.  She argues that if she were to do what they are doing, she might not be safe. “If I was going to Ramallah, and [I weren't stopped by Israeli authorities], they would kill me.” Although she says she doesn’t mind if Palestinians ride the bus with her, Sabina says she believes they could use the opportunity to attack Israelis.

Eventually, bus number 148 halted at the bus stop, and the activists and a crowd of journalists began to board. Most of the Israeli riders seemed confused but unalarmed – until one of activists began waving a large Palestinian flag. A settler tried to pull it out of his hand and a brief yelling match ensued. The bus began moving toward Jerusalem. 

“The first thing I will do if I reach Jerusalem is go to pray at Al-Aqsa mosque – and then go to the churches,” said Mr. Araj as the bus approached the Hizma checkpoint on the road to Jerusalem.  If he makes it, it will be his first visit to the city in 12 years, aside from a brief trip to a Jerusalem court a year ago, in the back of an Israeli Defense Forces jeep.

At the checkpoint, the bus was boarded by members of the Israel Border Police, who asked for the activists' identification. “Do you have permit?” an officer asked one of the activists, referring to a document that gives some West Bank Palestinians permission to enter Israel. The activist did not. “No? Then come with me.”

But activists refused to leave the bus, despite the officer’s commands. Eventually the bus pulled out of the checkpoint vehicle line and stopped in a parking lot where, after an hour, all the activists were removed by Israeli security forces.

“What happened today was an unfortunate, unnecessary, provocative incident,” said Israeli Police Spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld. Thousands of Palestinians regularly enter Israel to work or to receive medical care with proper documentation, he says. Several hundred Palestinians are stopped weekly, either while entering illegally or already in Israel. 

“Border police work 24/7 to stop people from jumping the wall and entering Israel,” he says. “Usually they are just sent back. It’s a normal procedure.”

The six activists were detained. They have since all been released, according to the Associated Press. 

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