Israel arrests "Freedom Riders" challenging apartheid road system

15 November 2011

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Palestinian activists staged a protest inspired by the Freedom Riders of the US civil rights movement.

(Anne Paq / ActiveStills)

“I’m a Freedom Rider! I’m just trying to go to Jerusalem!” shouted Palestinian activist Huwaida Arraf Tuesday evening as a live Internet video feed showed Israeli police officers dragging her off a bus linking Israeli settlements in the West Bank to Jerusalem.

Arraf and five other Palestinian activists boarded segregated Israeli public bus number 148 — which connects the illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel to Jerusalem — on Tuesday in an act of civil disobedience aimed to draw attention to Israeli colonial and apartheid policies and the lack of basic human rights Palestinians are afforded under this system.

After sitting peacefully on the bus at Israel’s Hizma checkpoint, just outside the northern entrance to Jerusalem, and nonviolently resisting attempts by the Israeli authorities to get them off the bus, all six “Freedom Riders” were eventually removed by force and arrested for illegally entering Israel without permits.

Another Palestinian Freedom Rider was also arrested while attempting to ride the segregated buses, and according to a Freedom Riders press release, was taken with the six other activists to Atarot police station (“Palestinian Freedom Riders On Their Way to Jerusalem Violently Arrested on Israeli Settler Bus”).

Their protest action was inspired by the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement in the United States, who nonviolently challenged segregation in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s.

“It’s going to be a challenge for Palestinians and for every human being for their morality. It’s going to be a challenge for the whole world to really take action against the Israeli crimes,” Palestinian Freedom Riders spokesperson Hurriyah Ziada told The Electronic Intifada on Monday.

While Palestinians are not explicitly barred from boarding Israeli public transportation in the West Bank, since most buses pass through Israeli settlements that are off-limits to Palestinians, the system is de facto segregated.

“Our challenge is going to be on the ground dealing with the settlers, but on the other hand, we’re waiting for the peoples’ reactions and the world’s reactions. Enough talk; we need real action on the ground and for people to take a side, taking a rightful side against Israeli discrimination,” Ziada said.

Tense hours at the checkpoint

The Freedom Riders left Ramallah Tuesday afternoon and headed to a bus stop in the occupied West Bank, which serves Israeli settlers near the Israeli settlement of Psagot. After a few buses drove past the Palestinian activists without stopping, six Freedom Riders, and a large group of journalists, managed to board a bus.

The bus was reportedly followed along its route by Israeli soldiers and police, and was stopped shortly after arriving at the Hizma checkpoint. Once there, Israeli settlers who had been on the bus got off, and Israeli soldiers and police officers boarded to check passengers’ IDs, according to images broadcast on the Freedom Waves live Internet video feed.

“The Israelis can’t take the wait and so they are getting off the bus. Let them see what we have to go through and let them ask why this is happening, and why it has to happen this way in order to try to change things,” said Freedom Rider Huwaida Arraf, as the settlers stood up and began leaving the bus, as documented in the Freedom Waves video feed.

“Whether they’re corralled in pens at checkpoints or held up and detained, not told why, arrested, held for days, weeks, sometimes months without any kind of legal justification at all … this happens to Palestinians every day,” she said.

“I want people to see the apartheid system here”

The Electronic Intifada spoke directly with Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, one of the Freedom Riders, at approximately 4:20pm local time on Tuesday, as he sat on the bus at the checkpoint.

“We’re on the bus. They just moved us a few yards beyond the [Hizma] checkpoint. We are in a parking lot and the soldiers are asking us to come down from the bus. The people refuse to come down from the bus. They are telling [us] that [we] are detained and [we] have to come from the bus. We don’t know yet what they are going to do. They took one person from the bus. There’s [Israeli] special forces, border police, regular police and soldiers surrounding the bus,” Qumsiyeh said.

“I don’t know [what will happen] but I think we will be punished severely,” Qumsiyeh, who was later arrested with the five other Freedom Riders, added. “I want [people] to see that we have an apartheid system here. There are illegal, colonial settlements in our land. These settlements have their own buses and they get to Jerusalem without anybody checking them, yet we, the native Palestinians, are not allowed to get to Jerusalem.”

Freedom of movement severely restricted

Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are illegal according to international law, including the Geneva conventions. It is estimated that approximately 500,000 Jewish Israelis currently live in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem estimates that from 1967 — when Israel imposed its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip — to mid-2010, the Israeli government established 121 settlements in the West Bank that were officially recognized by the Israeli Ministry of Interior.

In that same period, approximately 100 settler outposts, considered illegal under both international and Israeli laws, were erected, while twelve so-called “neighborhoods” of Jerusalem were built on land illegally annexed by Israel and are thereby also illegal under international law.

According to B’Tselem, Israel has created a system of “separation and discrimination, with two separate systems of law” in the occupied West Bank.

“One system, for the settlers, de facto annexes the settlements to Israel and grants settlers the rights of citizens of a democratic state. The other is a system of military law that systematically deprives Palestinian of their rights and denies them the ability to have any real effect on shaping the policy regarding the land space in which they live and with respect to their rights,” B’Tselem states on its website (“Land expropriation and settlements”).

Restrictions on Palestinian freedoms do not end at the settlements themselves, however. Instead, Palestinians’ rights are also violated by the infrastructure built to accommodate Israeli settlers, especially private, Israeli-only roads. “In October 2010, there were 232 kilometers of roads in the West Bank that Israel classified for the sole, or almost sole, use of Israelis, primarily of settlers,” says B’Tselem (“Checkpoints, Physical Obstructions, and Forbidden Roads”).

“Israel also prohibits Palestinians from even crossing some of these roads with vehicles, thereby restricting their access to nearby roads that they are ostensibly not prohibited from using. In these cases, Palestinians travelers have to get out of the vehicle, cross the road on foot, and find an alternative mode of transportation on the other side,” according to the human rights group.

Veolia a boycott target for serving settlements

Egged, Israel’s largest public transportation company, operates the bus that the Freedom Riders boarded in the West Bank Tuesday. French company Veolia also operates bus lines serving illegal Israeli settlements throughout the occupied West Bank.

According to the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), which organizes around the 2005 Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel as a way to end Israeli violations of international law and promote Palestinian rights, Egged and Veolia “are complicit in Israel’s violations of international law due to their involvement in and profiting from Israel’s illegal settlement infrastructure.”

Palestinian Freedom Rides Spokesperson Hurriyah Ziada told The Electronic Intifada that promoting the BDS call — and the specific boycott of and divestment from Egged and Veolia — is a major aim of the Freedom Rides movement.

“We’re trying to support the BDS campaign,” Ziadah said. “Negotiations have been going for too long and we haven’t been achieving anything on the ground. Everybody knows that these settlements are illegal on our land, but nobody is doing anything. Israel is not paying any cost for any of its actions. They have to pay a price by people boycotting them and by highlighting how racist they are. We ask for human rights and freedom, justice and dignity.”

“In the civil rights movement, they were fighting against racism,” Ziadah added, “but we’re going to be fighting against racism, discrimination [and] occupation. We’re going to be fighting to exist.”

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com.