New Internationalist

Introducing the Palestinian Freedom Riders

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Photo by Dena Elian
The Riders on the bus. Photo by Dena Elian

On November 15, 2011, six Palestinian activists challenged Israeli apartheid policies by boarding a segregated bus which runs inside the West Bank serving Israeli settlers.

Near the Jewish settlement of Psagot, the Palestinian Freedom Riders got on a bus owned by Israel’s largest transportation company, Egged, enroute to East Jerusalem. When the bus reached the Hizmeh checkpoint, it was surrounded and shut down by border police and army. The activists were forcefully dragged from the bus, and arrested. They have since been released.

Huwaida Arraf, one of the Riders, recounts how she got a feeling of strength from knowing that this action would send a message to the rest of the world.

‘I sat there, it was with a sense of determination,’ she says. ‘It was important to expose Israeli colonization policies so people will understand. Lots of people were with us, if not in person, in spirit.’

This act of civil disobedience is a reminder of the Civil Rights Movement Freedom Rides fifty years ago in the United States. The first Freedom Ride began in Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961 when African Americans travelled into the Deep South on segregated buses. Although they were subjected to acts of violence and arrests, they did not give up. Within four months, 60 more Rides went around the South. So successful was this act of resistance that in November, 1961 public transport, restaurants, waiting rooms, drinking fountains, and restrooms were all desegregated.

Freedom, justice, and self-determination

The Palestinian Freedom Ride was a protest against the occupation of Palestine, and according to a statement released by the Freedom Riders, an assertion of the Palestinian aspirations for freedom, justice, and self-determination. The four-decade-long Israeli occupation of Palestine has resulted in discrimination, segregation, and loss of freedom of movement, land, life, and the loss of the basic human rights of the Palestinian people.

The Ride was also a protest against the Egged and Veolia (French) transportation companies. By routing their buses between the illegal settlements, connecting them to each other and to Israel, they provide a service to the settlers and profit from the occupation.

It is an unwritten rule that Palestinians cannot ride the buses, resulting in a segregated public transportation system

‘They travel in and out of our occupied land, on roads that we often can’t use into places that we can’t reach, including Jerusalem,’ says Badee Dwak, one of the activists. ‘They need to be divested from and boycotted. Not just here, but around the world. It is a moral duty to end complicity in this Israeli system of apartheid.’

Photo by Dena Elian
A Rider is removed from the bus and arrested. Photo by Dena Elian

The use of the Israeli public transport system in the West Bank is not technically forbidden to Palestinians, but since the bus lines pass through the settlements, to which Palestinians are forbidden entry by military decree, it is an unwritten rule that they cannot ride the buses, resulting in a segregated public transportation system in the West Bank.

Approximately half a million Israelis live in illegal settlements in the West Bank. According to B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – up until mid-2011, there were 124 settlements and 100 outposts that were established with government assistance but are not officially recognized.

This number does not include East Jerusalem, where there are 12 Israeli neighbourhoods. The settlements are built on Palestinian-owned land, and pose numerous obstacles to the Palestinians. Unlike the Palestinians, settlers do not face any restrictions on their movement around the West Bank, or between Israel and the West Bank.

Restricted movement

The movement of the Palestinians within the West Bank, on the other hand, is restricted by a series of fixed checkpoints, flying (non-permanent) checkpoints, physical obstructions such as concrete slabs, dirt piles, and trenches, more than 230 kilometers of Jewish-only roads in which Palestinian travel is forbidden, and the Wall.

Furthermore, Palestinians are not permitted entrance to Israel without a special permit from the Israeli authorities.

‘We call on the people of the world to support our struggle for freedom like they supported the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa’

The illegal system of military and settler control of the West Bank, which has taken over more than 42 per cent of the Palestinian territory, has resulted in difficulties for Palestinians to reach their places of employment and education and receive healthcare in hospitals. It has separated farmers from their land and water resources, and villages and families from each other. The list of hardships Palestinians face due to the occupation is almost endless.

‘Israel’s control over Palestinians must end and all of Israel’s Jewish-only colonies that sit on stolen land must be dismantled,’ says Hurriyah Ziada, spokeswoman for the Palestinian Freedom Riders. ‘As we struggle for our people’s basic rights, we call on the people of the world to support our struggle for freedom like they supported the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa.’

With a sense of empowerment, and the strength of ‘people power,’ the hope is that the Freedom Riders will ride again soon.

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