By Khaled Diab
Following the successful Palestinian ‘freedom rides', it's time for Israeli ‘freedom riders' to cross the barriers between the two peoples.
Friday 2 December 2011
Drawing inspiration from the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, a group of six Palestinian ‘freedom riders' – dressed in the emblematic Palestinian chequered ‘keffiyeh' and T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘dignity', ‘freedom' and ‘justice' – boarded an Israeli bus bound from the West Bank to Jerusalem.
Their mission: to defy the Israeli military's restrictions on West Bank Palestinians entering East Jerusalem, as well as a general protest against the occupation and the limitations it imposes on their freedom of movement on the land earmarked for their future state.
Like for Jews in the diaspora, who for centuries longed, at first spiritually, 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,” one of the freedom riders, Nadeem al-Shirbaty, who works as an ironsmith and activist in Hebron, told me.
After a number of failed attempts, the Palestinian activists, accompanied by a large pack of journalists, managed to get on a bus, but were blocked from entering Jerusalem at the Hizma checkpoint. “If they try to remove us from the bus, I'll refuse to get off,” another freedom rider, Bassel al-Araj, a pharmacist from Walajeh, a small village near Bethlehem, confided to me on the bus while various police and army units standing outside debated what to do.
Though the protesters were ultimately dragged off the bus and arrested, they view their action as having been a great success because it drew international attention to their plight in a peaceful and non-violent manner. They vow to continue and scale up their campaign of civil disobedience.
In addition to the legion of journalists, a number of Israeli activists were also on the bus. They had come in solidarity with the freedom riders and to help spread the word, though they refused to comment on the record with me because they argued that this was a Palestinian action and they did not want to draw attention away from it.
But there is an Israeli angle. Despite the easing of the restrictions imposed during the second intifada, Israelis, with the exception of Palestinian-Israelis, are still barred from entering Area A – made up mostly of the major Palestinian urban areas in the West Bank – and Gaza.
Naturally, the restrictions on Israelis are far less severe than those suffered by Gazans, who live under a blockade, and West Bank Palestinians, who have to weave their away around settlements, settler roads, and land designated as ‘military areas', not to mention the regular closures and curfews.
Nevertheless, I believe it is time for Israeli peace activists and concerned citizens to become freedom riders themselves to defy this unfair restriction which entrenches the segregated reality between the two peoples, enabling extremists to take advantage of the darkness and demonise at their leisure. It would also enable Israelis to express solidarity with their Palestinian neighbours and raise Israeli public awareness of the reality in the occupied territories.
Israeli activists I have canvassed generally reacted positively to the idea. The poet, publicist and social activist Mati Shemoelof said: “I think it is a really great idea that will help challenge the myths and misconceptions that Israelis have about Palestinians and highlight, through direct action, the reality of segregation.”
The myths and misconceptions that Shemoelof thinks Israeli freedom riders can counter include the widespread Israeli belief that Palestinians enjoy sovereignty but cannot govern themselves, which can help explain the paradoxical attitude that more than half of Israelis want to return the occupied territories but have not mobilised to do so.
Another common misconception is that Palestinians do not know the meaning of non-violent protest. “Most of the Israelis after the second intifada refuse to believe that the Palestinian can be our friends. They see them as Hamasnics. Israelis can't relate to Palestinian life because of mass media demonisation.” This common fear is part of the reason why many Israelis, either explicitly or implicitly, support the draconian restrictions imposed on Palestinians and are not willing to travel to Palestinian areas.
One Israeli I spoke to insisted that any plans to organise Israeli freedom riders must be “coordinated with Palestinians and not seen as an Israeli civilian invasion of sorts”.
Palestinian activists I have spoken to say that all the ramifications and implications of the action, as well as its political messaging, must be studied carefully before they would be willing to lend their support to such Israeli freedom rides. They are concerned that such an initiative could be hijacked or misused by settlers and extremists to justify the occupation. “It could suggest that there is equivalence between the plight of Palestinians living under occupation and the situation of Israeli settlers,” one concerned activist said.
Naturally, there are Israelis who disregard the restrictions regularly. On the hostile side, there are the militant settlers out to perpetrate ‘price tag' attacks on Palestinians and their infrastructure.
On the friendly side, numerous activists and well-meaning citizens travel to Area A without a permit. For example, Yuval Ben Ami, who blogs at +972, recently travelled quite extensively through the West Bank, including to troubled Hebron, where he was surprised by the warmth of the welcome he received from locals, but was eventually arrested by hospitable Palestinian police who plied him with sweet coffee and handed him over to the Israeli authorities.
Standing on the roof of a massive shopping mall, he reflects: “I am thrilled, slowly getting my bearings. The ability… to compare and contrast wounded Hebron with breathing Hebron, is priceless for me. I have never held a more powerful tool for understanding the meaning of the occupation and the actual extent of the damage it causes.”
Gershon Baskin, the co-founder of the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information and a columnist with The Jerusalem Post, also travels regularly to Area A: “I do travel all over the West Bank and I never ask a permit for myself. I don't think I flout [the restrictions] but I am not willing to ask for a permit for myself.” He expressed his willingness to participate in actions which challenge the system.
These piecemeal efforts to circumnavigate the restrictions will not challenge the status quo. What is required is a convoy of Israeli freedom riders travelling openly and conspicuously, with the bells and whistles of banners, placards and T-shirts.
It is my view that one of the main stumbling blocks on the path to peace is the absence of true human contact between Israelis and Palestinians – for whom the vast majority of encounters are negative ones between occupier and occupied – which creates fertile ground for fear, distrust and hatred.
Israeli freedom riders can help overcome this psychological barrier by crossing, in peace and compassion, the physical barriers separating the two peoples. Whatever ultimate resolution to the conflict prevails, the close physical proximity of Israelis and Palestinians will require close co-operation, and freedom riders can help drive the two sides a mile closer.
This article was first published by The Jerusalem Post on 28 November 2011.