Palestinian ‘Freedom Riders’ arrested on bus to Jerusalem

AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS - An Israeli soldier checks the identity card of a Palestinian activist aboard a bus at Hizma checkpoint on the edge of Jerusalem.

HIZMA CHECKPOINT, West Bank — Evoking the nonviolent tactics of the American civil rights movement, six Palestinian activists boarded an Israeli commuter bus linking Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Jerusalem on Tuesday and were arrested as they tried to ride through an Israeli checkpoint on the outskirts of the city.

The group, part of a loose network of independent activists in the West Bank, called themselves “Freedom Riders,” taking the name of civil rights activists who in the 1960s challenged segregation on interstate buses in the southern United States and were attacked by violent mobs.

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The Palestinian activists said they were demanding the right to travel freely to Jerusalem, to which access from the West Bank is restricted by Israel, and protesting against bus companies running lines serving Jewish settlements. Israel tightened restrictions on entry of Palestinians to Jerusalem after a string of suicide bombings in the city during a violent uprising that erupted in 2000.

“We are using civil disobedience to disrupt the status quo,” Fadi Quran, one of the activists, said before boarding a bus operated by the Israeli Egged company at a stop serving settlements several miles north of Jerusalem. An Arab headscarf on his shoulders, Quran wore a T-shirt that said: “We shall overcome.”

“As part of our struggle for freedom, justice and dignity, we demand the ability to be able to travel freely on our roads, on our own land, including the right to travel to Jerusalem,” said a statement read by Hurriyah Ziada, a spokeswoman for the activists, in Ramallah before the group set out for the bus stop on back roads to avoid army checkpoints.

At the Hizma checkpoint on Jerusalem’s northern outskirts, Israeli police boarded the bus for identity checks and asked one of the Palestinians, Badia Dweik of Hebron, whether he had a permit to enter Jerusalem.

“Why don’t you ask the settlers for a permit?” Dweik replied, referring to the Israeli passengers. “It’s my right to ride the bus. This is racism. I’m just like them.”

“No permit, no entry,” a military policewoman told him. After Dweik refused to get off the bus, a group of officers tried to drag him off, but he went limp at the narrow doorway, thwarting the initial attempt to arrest him.

Nadim Sharabati from Hebron, sitting next to Dweik, was also told to get off. “Do you demand permits from settlers who come to our area?” he asked. A policeman replied, “Those are the laws.”

“Those are racist laws,” Sharabati said. “Tell me, isn’t this racist discrimination between me and the settlers?”

After a standoff, a larger police contingent boarded the bus and hauled off the activists, arresting them for trying to enter Jerusalem without permits.

The bus protest, which organizers said would be followed by more, drew responses ranging from indifference to hostility from Israeli passengers on board.

“Terrorists!” snapped one man.

Esther Cohen, from the settlement of Maaleh Levonah, said that allowing Palestinians on Israeli buses in the West Bank was a security risk and that she feared one could get off and carry out an attack in a Jewish settlement. Tapping her finger on the bulletproof window of the armored bus, she said, “When we can ride in an ordinary bus, then they can get on as well.”

Watching the activists and a crowd of journalists gather at the bus stop near his settlement, a man who gave his name as Hananel said that Palestinians should ride their own buses. “This is a Jewish state here,” he said.

 
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