By Khaled Diab
Thursday 17 November 2011
For untold millions around the world, buses are little more than a mundane and functional aspect of their daily lives. But there are times when public tranposrt take on huge symbolic importance. In 1961, for example, Washington DC played host to the first ‘freedom riders’, courageous civil rights activists who boarded an interstate bus bound for New Orleans to challenge the federally outlawed segregation practised in the southern states.
Half a century later and half a world away, a group of Palestinian activists has drawn inspiration from the African-American civil rights struggle and organised their own ‘freedom ride’ on Tuesday, 15 November, which marked the anniversary of the Palestinians’ symbolic declaration of independence in 1988. Symbolic because, like their current quest for UN membership, Palestinians still live under Israeli military occupation, with all the restrictions on their liberty that involves, including the freedom to travel, work their land, to build and to manage their own affairs.
“Although the tactics and methodologies differ, the white supremacists and the Israeli occupiers commit the same crime: they strip a people of freedom, justice and dignity,” said Hurriyah Ziada, the young spokeswoman for the Palestinian Freedom Riders, whose name, appropriately enough, means ‘more freedom’ in Arabic.
“As part of our struggle for freedom, justice and dignity, we demand the ability to be able to travel freely on our own land and roads, including the right to travel to Jerusalem,” she told the dozens of journalists who had crowded into the courtyard of the state-of-the-art cultural palace in Ramallah, the town which, with Israel’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem, acts as the Palestinians’ de facto capital. She also called for boycott and divestment against the Israeli and French bus companies that run lines through the occupied West Bank.
Of course, there are certain key differences between the situation in the southern American states in the 1960s and the situation in Israel and Palestine today. There is no actual law that forbids Palestinians from boarding Israeli buses, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem do so on a daily basis, although Jews and Arabs rarely mix in the troubled ‘holy city’ and possess their own parallel transportation systems.
However, holders of West Bank identity cards live under restrictions imposed by the occupying Israeli military and are barred from entering Jewish settlements and Jerusalem unless they are in possession of rare permits to do so. So, while African-Americans were free to travel where they wanted but not to board whites-only buses, West Bank Palestinians are legally entitled to board Israelis buses but cannot ride them to their destinations. Such is the perverse logic of segregation and discrimination.
And this is what the six brave freedom riders set out to do: challenge the ban on Palestinians travelling to Jerusalem, running the risk of arrest and possible attacks by violent settler extremists, who have recently not only escalated their attacks on Palestinians but have also increasingly targeted the Israeli military, Israeli leftists and human rights activists with violence.
But even the most serious political activism is not without its surreal moments and light relief. As the six would-be passengers set out in search of a bus stop, the snaking convoy of perhaps 50 or more carloads of journalists followed on a sort of blind bus chase. This caused not only curiosity among passing motorists but a number of traffic jams on some of the narrower back roads used by Palestinians who are not allowed to drive on many settler-only roads and so have to take massive detours to avoid them.
We eventually wound up on Road 60, one of the few main arteries in the West Bank which is open both to Israeli and Palestinian traffic. When we finally arrived at a bus stop near the settlements of Psagot and Migron, it was difficult to tell whether the bewildered expressions on the faces of the waiting Israelis were due to the presence of the six activists – who wore the emblematic Palestinian chequered ‘keffiyeh’ and T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘dignity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ – or the dozens of unruly journalists milling about the road and even standing on the roof of the bus stop.
The commotion eventually drew the Israeli police, army and the private security from one of the nearby settlements. But all of them seemed to be at a loss as to what to do. As we waited for a bus that would permit the Palestinians to board without just pulling away from the crowd, I spoke to some of the Freedom Riders.
Like for Jews in the diaspora, who for centuries longed for “Next year in Jerusalem”, the holy city carries huge symbolic significance for Palestinians. “I haven’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years. It’s a dream of mine to enter Jerusalem,” said Nadeem al-Shirbaty (33), an ironsmith from Hebron who co-founded a movement called Youth Against Settlements.
Huwaida Arraf (35), the only woman Freedom Rider and a passionate advocate of the Palestinian cause, also holds American citizenship but refused to bring her US passport along. “To be clear, Israel would not be able to do this without the United States’ financial support and political protection,” she told me. “It’s up to the American people to say, ‘No, we fought this during the civil rights movement in the 60s. We don’t accept it for our own communities, so we should not be funding it abroad either.’”
One of the settlers at the bus stop, who could have easily passed for a Palestinian had it not been for his kippah (yarmulka), voiced a concern common among Israelis. “We are scared that those people will come and blow us up,” he admitted to me. “If one or two or even a hundred come in peace, so what. All you need is one in a thousand to have a bomb, then what are you going to do? How are you going to stop it?”
This raises a number of thorny ethical questions. Although a tiny minority of Palestinians has been guilty of violent resistance and terrorism against Israelis, including suicide bombings targeting civilians, does this justify the collective punishment of millions and does such collective punishment reduce or increase the chance of future attacks?
As it began to look unlikely that the freedom riders would manage to find a ride, Basel al-A’raj (28), from Walajeh, a small village near Bethlehem, told me: “We’ve been trying for over 60 years to bring our cause to the world’s attention. It’s not a problem for me to wait here for a few hours for a bus.”
Not much later, a bus arrived that the Freedom Riders managed to alight and the assembled journalists quite literally tried to press gang their
way on to the bus as the driver desperately attempted to shut the door on his by-now desperately full vehicle. Unable to get on the bus, I joined a number of other journalists who went ahead to the Hizma checkpoint on the outskirts of Jerusalem to wait for the bus. When the bus arrived there, the soldiers at the checkpoint were also at a loss as to what to do with the disobedient activists.
Eventually, they got the bus to pull up into the checkpoint’s car park, where I managed to board as the Israeli passengers began to disembark though numerous Israeli activists remained on board in solidarity. Meanwhile, a stream of officials from the police, military and special forces arrived to take stock of the situation. International activists carrying large placards also formed a human wall in front of the bus.
On the bus, the Freedom Riders and dozens of journalists waited to see how the situation would unfold. A number of Arabic-speaking police officers boarded the bus and tried in vain to convince the activists to vacate the bus and informed them that they were under arrest for attempting to enter Jerusalem illegally and for disrupting public order.
“Our action has been a runaway success, regardless of what happens in the next few hours,” contended Mazen Qumseyeh (54), an academic and university professor who has published several books on the Palestinian struggle.
“If they try to remove us from the bus, I’ll refuse to get off,” al-A’raj, with his curly hair, said determinedly, giving me a toothy smile, from his so-far undetected position at the back of the bus. “I will abide by the principles of the law, not military decrees, but civilian and international law, which guarantee my freedom of movement.”
Reflecting on his state, he told me that he was overcome by a torrent of conflicting feelings, including excitement and fear. “But we live with these mixed emotions all the time under occupation. Every day, homes are raided and people are arrested. The main difference is that, this time, there is media coverage.”
After a couple of hours, the Israelis resolved on a course of action and delivered an ultimatum to the activists that they either got off the bus voluntarily or they would be forcibly removed. The police then carried them off one by one to a waiting police van, and each Freedom Rider shouted out their name and rejected what they regarded as the illegality of what the Israeli police was doing to them. The activists were released from custody a few hours later.
Though I was stranded without a ride at the checkpoint, unlike the activists, I was able to walk up a few hundred metres to the nearest Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev and take the bus into Jerusalem. On the way home, I reflected on how I, as a foreigner, have so much more freedom of movement than the local Palestinians of the West Bank and even more so than those in Gaza, and how I take this mobility to roam the world for granted, while Palestinians can have trouble not only travelling to Jerusalem, but during times of heightened tension, to other Palestinian towns and villages.
Despite their failure to enter Jerusalem and their arrest, the Freedom Riders are determined to scale up and continue their campaign to become regular rebel commuters to Jerusalem. “This is only the beginning. This is the first bus, but there are bound to be future attempts involving more riders,” promised Arraf before her arrest.
With the peace process long dead in the water and the end of the Israeli occupation unlikely in the foreseeable future, I have long advocated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be transformed into a peaceful, non-violent civil rights struggle for equality and dignity. This could be a significant step along this long road. Once everyone is enfranchised and has a voice, then the two peoples can start a conversation of equals about their future and whether it will be a common one or whether they will file for a magnanimous divorce.
This is an extended version of an article which appeared in Salon on 17 November 2011.