On November 15, a group of Palestinian activists were arrested while travelling on a bus carrying Israeli settlers. The activists called themselves the “Freedom Riders”, after the American civil rights campaigners of 1961.
Their aim was to demonstrate that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank has led to segregation. Because settler buses go to areas that most Palestinians cannot enter, Palestinians are effectively prevented from using them.
However, the activists made clear that their goal was not equal rights with Israeli settlers:
In undertaking this action Palestinians do not seek the desegregation of settler buses, as the presence of these colonizers and the infrastructure that serves them is illegal and must be dismantled. As part of their struggle for freedom, justice and dignity, Palestinians demand the ability to be able to travel freely on their own roads, on their own land, including the right to travel to Jerusalem.
Yesterday I witnessed six Palestinian activists demand freedom, justice and dignity as they defied Israel’s apartheid policies when the group successfully boarded settler-only buses and attempted to enter East Jerusalem, where they were eventually brutally dragged off and arrested by the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF). At the press conference and in the lead up to the event, the activists described how they had taken inspiration from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the heroic actions of Rosa Parks. Drawing on the struggles of African Americans who fought against segregation and inequality in the United States, and South Africans who battled against apartheid, the Palestinian Freedom Riders aimed to draw the world’s attention to the similarity of the struggle faced by the Palestinian people on a daily basis.
Unlike in the American South of the 60s, you will not see signs around the settlements or at the checkpoints stating “No Palestinians here” – Israel manages its PR machine far too well for such overtly racist statements to be witnessed by the other “democratic” countries which fund its existence. Similarly, Palestinians are technically allowed to ride “settler-only” buses and drive on “settler-only” roads, something repeated by the Israeli media and the settlers who came off the buses yesterday. But the segregation, inequality and the denial of Palestinian’s rights to enter their own land is implemented in a far more covert way by Israel. Whilst Palestinians may be able to travel on the buses and roads, these buses lead either into the internationally recognised illegal settlements, or into East Jerusalem where Palestinians are forbidden to enter. East Jerusalem is the intended capital of a future Palestinian state, yet Israel has denied the majority of Palestinians access to the city without a permit, which are almost impossible to obtain. As a result, Israel has been able to continually expand the settlements in East Jerusalem, particularly in the highly contentious area of Sheikh Jarrah, and this has lead to the annexing of Palestinian populated areas in the city so that it is surrounded by Israeli settlements, systematically destroying the possibility of having a Palestinian controlled capital. As I hope is becoming evident, the Palestinian Freedom Riders movement is not simply about the segregation of buses, the problem here is much larger. Palestinians face an apparatus of military control over Palestinians that needs to be dismantled, along with the settlements themselves.
Haitham Al Katib posted the following video on YouTube:
Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, one of the Freedom Riders, wrote on his blog about his experience:
I was honored to be a freedom rider and it was team effort at its best (those who rode and the many who worked behind the scenes). Two other Palestinians were also arrested with us who were there as a reporters/observers not participants. […] While released, we are still charged with “illegal entry to Jerusalem” and with “obstructing police business” pending potential trial.
He described his treatment by one Israeli soldier after being arrested:
One young Ashkenazi soldier was very arrogant and even called me “Professor Teez” (Teez is arabic for “ass”). We all (freedom riders) laughed it off and I told him that I did not insult him and that when someone insults me they demean themselves first.
Back to Holly, who concluded her post by saying:
The Freedom Riders are demanding that their very basic human rights are upheld in accordance with international law, and to demonstrate that they will continue to engage non-violently to win the freedom, justice and dignity for which the Palestinian people have struggled for so long.