At the media meeting point, journalists jumped out of their cars, blocking both lanes of the road, and rushed to catch a glimpse of the freedom riders. Inspired by the US civil rights movement Freedom Rides, 6 Palestinians were on their way to (attempt to) board segregated Israeli settler buses to occupied East Jerusalem.
Public statements from the Palestinian Freedom Riders:
Badee’ Dwak, who was arrested during the ride, said: “The companies operating Israeli buses, like Egged and Veolia, are directly complicit in Israel’s violations of our rights. They transport settlers in and out of our occupied land, on roads that we often can’t use into places that we can’t reach, including Jerusalem. 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.”
Basel Al Araj commented prior to his arrest: “The settlers are to Israel what the KKK was to the Jim Crow South – an unruly, fanatic mob that has enormous influence in shaping Israeli policies today and that violently enforces these policies with extreme violence and utter impunity all over the occupied Palestinian territory, especially in and around Jerusalem.”
The freedom riders walked to the bus stop, followed by a mob of cameras and journalists. They carried signs reading – DIGNITY, DEFY UNJUST LAWS, WE SHALL OVERCOME
Four buses passed without stopping to admit the Palestinians. As the fifth neared, Huwaida Arraf (Palestinian activist and lawyer) reached out her hand and hailed the bus to a stop, then lead the 5 other freedom riders, and a swarm of cameras, to the doors of the bus.
Once they boarded the bus, we ran to our car and did our best to follow them, despite an Israeli military jeep which appeared to be purposely driving slow to deter the cars behind it from catching up to the bus. We took a short cut and arrived at Hizmeh checkpoint.
Here, the bus was stopped, and some of the Israeli passengers got off when it became apparent that there was going to be delays. They had a stand-off here for about an hour. In the meantime, friends and I got out the posters we had prepared and began to demonstrate along the street leading up to the checkpoint and the bus. Many passing Israelis made rude gestures, refused to look at us, even shouted – but now and then, we would catch the smile of a 1948-Palestinian who holds Israeli citizenship, but whose heart lay with us.
The Palestinian Freedom Rides are specifically calling for a boycott against two companies profiting from Israel’s illegal settlement infrastructure: the largest Israeli public transportation company, Egged, which the freedom riders boarded, and Veolia, a French prominent transportation company in the Occupied Territory. For more information on companies involved in Israel’s human rights violations, visit BDS.
Veolia is involved in building a tramway that links illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem with Israel. Article 49th of the 4th Geneva Convention forbids an occupier from transferring its own civilians into the area it occupies.
Although there is no official prohibition against Palestinians on Israeli transportation in the West Bank, in practice, the buses are segregated. They pass through Jewish-only settlements which forbid Palestinian entry by military decree.
Palestinians need a rarely-given Israeli permission to enter Israel (1948 Palestine), Jerusalem, or any of the 224 illegal settlements within the West Bank. Peace Now’s interactive map shows all these settlements. Israel restricts Palestinian freedom of movement by means of temporary, permanent, and random checkpoints, by forbidding Palestinian use of certain roads, and the Occupation wall.
Israelis in occupied Palestine have very few limitations enforced to them. They are encouraged by the Israeli government to illegally, by International law, settle in the West Bank. The United Nations says the number of attacks by extremist Jewish settlers on Palestinians resulting in either injury or damage to property has roughly tripled since 2009. Around 10,000 olive trees have been burned or damaged by settlers this year alone. Despite this, the UN report says that in 90% of complaints filed to the Israeli police by Palestinians against settlers, nobody is ever indicted.
Although by the laws of occupation, Israel has a responsibility to protect the Palestinians from these settlers (in fact, Israel should not have illegal colonies within the country they occupy in the first place) – very little is done to prevent the violence. Settlers are most often free to travel to Palestinian areas, are not searched, are free to carry weapons, and are sometimes even trained by the army. When they do commit crimes, Israeli military and police often are delayed in bringing a stop to it, or do not interfere at all. Settlers are rarely indicted for these crimes, even murder.
While it was stopped at Hizmeh checkpoint, border police had tried to aggressively drag one of the Palestinians off the bus, but unsuccessful, they decided to command the bus 200 metres up the road, in order to free up the blocked lane in the checkpoint, and attempt to evade some of the media. Here they planned to arrest them. When we tried to go, soldiers let through all the demonstrators except me – for the same reason the Freedom Riders were about to be arrested – I’m Palestinian. Instead of returning to sit in the taxi alone and accept the rules that allow anyone except the actual descendents of the land to enter, me and 3 others decided to try to walk through the checkpoint anyways, knowing that I risked arrest for it. Immediately soldiers surrounded us and blocked the way. They took a look at my Canadian passport, then walked away and began to do other work without returning it. I began to follow the soldier demanding he return it, until he passed it off to another soldier. Now three soldiers faced us.
“I’ll give you the passport if you go back,” said a soldier.
“Give me the passport, but I’m not going back,” I replied. The 3 internationals with me began to demand that he give me my passport, that he’s already seen it and has no right to detain it.
He handed it back to me, and tried to push me back, “alright, now go back.”
“Nope” we replied simply. He tried to grab the passport back, but I pulled my arm out of his reach, then snuck the passport into my pocket and the two other soldiers burst into laughter at how he managed to lose the passport, but not us.
We stood in confrontation for around an hour. I was speaking to only one of the three soldiers, because he was the only one who spoke Arabic. The soldier would say, “It’s not me, it’s the law.” But when asked about the illegality of the settlements they are blocking entry to, he was unable to look at me. “It’s not me, it’s the establishment. I’m not blocking you from going” he would say, trying to extinguish his role in this. It’s not you? So on his cue, I stepped to his right and began to walk through the checkpoint – only to be surrounded by even more soldiers.
Eventually we decided to turn back because we heard word that all six Freedom Riders had been violently arrested, and we wanted to go to the Atarot prison to protest. It didn’t feel good to turn away, but at least we showed a few soldiers that there are some people still not normalized to their rules of apartheid.
We headed back to Ramallah, then crossed the Qalandia checkpoint into another area that according to Israel’s laws, I’m forbidden to enter, but we managed! We held a protest outside the Atarot prison where we knew the Freedom Riders were being held. For us it felt a little bit futile, as it was late at night, and the media had all gone home, but the Palestinians being held told us later that they could hear our chants and even had tried to shout back!
We soon after made the decision to leave, because soldiers came out and threatened to arrest us all if we weren’t gone in ten minutes. Although some of us were ready to defy this, we made the decision that it wasn’t worth it as there was no media left and we needed to get home to send our reports, photos, and videos of the day.
The large crew of cameras definitely had an influence on the turn-out of events.
On the one hand, they had a positive extinguishing effect on the likelihood of violence from Israeli settlers and soldiers.
The other hand is that it resulted in a non-realistic handling of the situation. Had the cameras not been present, the Palestinian Freedom Riders would very likely have been subject to much more abuse, may not have been able to get on the bus in the first place, and probably would have been held in Israeli detention for much longer.
Although no one wishes these things for the Palestinian Riders who boarded the bus, it is worth noting.
At the end of the day, we went home with the feeling that, as a fellow ISMer puts it, “like I was witnessing history.”