Palestine’s ‘Freedom Riders’ Reveal Lesser-Known Side of Israeli-Style Apartheid

Israeli border police soldiers stand near an Israeli public bus serving settlements in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Israeli border police soldiers stand near an Israeli public bus serving settlements in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Whenever pro-justice and anti-occupation activists draw parallels between the Israeli occupation and South African apartheid or the U.S. civil rights movement, critics are quick to point out examples of why such allusions are imperfect. Of course, all analogies from one freedom struggle to another are imperfect. But one of the biggest difference between Israeli oppression and these other examples is that Israel is careful not to codify many of its most discriminatory practices into explicit laws. (Though even this is changing.) Generally, it counts on de facto discrimination.

So for example, when Palestinian activists boarded Israeli buses as part of a “Freedom Ride” campaign, no, there is no law saying they can’t ride buses of Israeli companies like Egged pictured above that connect West Bank settlements to Jerusalem. West Bank Palestinians are just not allowed to enter most settlements—or Jerusalem–without special permission. Why? Like the answer to every question in Sunday school is “Jesus,” the answer to every question about why Israel discriminates on the basis of ethno-religious identity is “Security.”

Even the AP felt the need to inform the reader why their theme was inappropriate (emphasis added):

The Palestinian activists dubbed themselves “Freedom Riders” after 1960s American civil rights activists who worked in the U.S. South to counter racial discrimination and segregation there, though there were no security elements in the American rights struggle.

Tell that to the FBI official who wrote a memo after the March on Washington, describing Martin Luther King, Jr. as: “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.” (emphasis added) “Democracies” have a long history of using security rationales to repress elements that resist oppression.

But just as the violence of segregated America was laid bare by the civil rights movement, that same AP article revealed a very interesting irony regarding the passengers of the Palestinian “Freedom Ride” bus:

The Palestinians paid their fares and boarded, as reporters jostled to board. Dwaik [one of the Palestinian activists] sat a row away from Haggai Segal, a 54-year-old Israeli from the settlement of Ofra once jailed for planting a car bomb that badly wounded a Palestinian mayor. The two did not interact.

That’s right—the Jewish terrorist bomber ex-con gets to ride the bus from his settlement home (built illegally according to international law) and ride into Jerusalem as he likes. The nonviolent Palestinian activists are dragged off the bus and arrested. Moreover:

Posted on the bus stop were posters praising the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, an extremist who argued that Palestinians should be expelled from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

So remind me—who’s the security risk here? And if you still don’t think apartheid or civil rights analogies are appropriate, check out the comments of some of the Jewish Israeli bus riders, courtesy of +972:

“I don’t think they need to be here,” Amir continued. “They can be in their villages and their houses, why are they in our area? Can we go to Ramallah? If we go into Ramallah, they’ll kill us. Can we go into their villages or their areas? We can’t enter.”

Amir added that, in her opinion, Jewish Israelis can’t trust Palestinians or believe in them. “They’ll do terror attacks,” she said.

A 16-year-old Jewish Israeli, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the Freedom Riders shouldn’t be able to board the bus because, “It’s an Israeli bus.”

“We live here, this is our land,” he said.

When asked about those who feel differently, the boy replied, “Those who say this is Palestinian land don’t have proof.”

He added that Palestinians enjoy a lot of freedom. “We give them identity cards and they can do whatever they want.”

+972 asked the boy, a resident of Maale Adumim who wished to remain anonymous, if Palestinians can do whatever they want, then why can’t they ride a bus to Jerusalem?

“Okay,” he said. “They can do what they need to… I don’t want them boarding the bus.”

A teenage girl with long, curly, blonde hair talked to a friend as she watched the activists get on the bus. “What are they doing? They have their own [buses]?” she said. She moved the phone away from her mouth and yelled at the male activists, “You sons of bitches!”

“You whore,” she said shouted at Arraf, the only female Freedom Rider.

No one can deny that some Palestinians have carried out acts of violence over the years. But the naked racism expressed here that attributes such acts to all members of a particular group is astonishing. Moreover, while instances of Palestinian violence have dropped significantly in the last few years, acts of violence and terror by Jewish Israeli extremists is increasing dramatically. Thankfully, as evidenced by the Israeli sites I’ve linked to in this post like Haaretz and +972, the debate within Israeli society about such issues is alive and well—if a bit stunted by the general rightward shift of Israeli society.

Let’s hope these debates go beyond the bounds expressed by some of this bus’s passengers:

On board, the Palestinians’ presence sparked an argument between two young Jewish Israelis girls, aged 13 and 17.

“They’re animals,” the younger said.

“No, not everyone,” the older answered.

Palestinian buses wait in line at the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Palestinian buses wait in line at the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem.