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16 Nov, 2011

Palestinian Freedom Riders Forced Off Bus that Serves Jewish-only Settlements

Antonia House, Jewish Voice for Peace

I’m writing to you right now from a press room in Ramallah in the West Bank. And I can’t help but feel I’ve just witnessed something truly historic.

Six breathtakingly courageous Palestinian human rights activists just tried to take the bus from Ramallah to East Jerusalem. It’s a trip I’ve made countless times without a hitch.

But I’m a Jewish American. I can move about freely. And Fadi Quran, Nadeem Al-Sharbate, Badee Dwak, Huwaida Arraf, Basel Al-Araj and Mazin Qumsiyeh are Palestinian. They cannot move freely in their own country. Instead of being allowed entry to East Jerusalem, the Freedom Riders were violently arrested and held for hours in the Atarot Prison. I’m thrilled to report that just moments ago I got word they were released.

But the struggle is not over! The Freedom Riders have just begun. And they need your help.

These six Freedom Riders chose to board a bus that serves Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank on it’s way to Occupied East Jerusalem, wearing kuffiyehs (Palestinian scarfs) and t-shirts reading ‘Justice’, ‘Freedom’, and ‘We Shall Overcome’. Inspired by the Freedom Rides of the American Civil Rights Movement, they took this bold action to expose the racism and policies of segregation that pervade every aspect of life in occupied Palestine. To send the message to the world that separate is NOT equal. Not in the United States and not in Israel or Palestine. They also wanted to bring attention to the role of Israeli and international companies, such as Egged and Veolia, who operate these segreated bus lines, in perpetuating and profiting from the occupation.

In recent years the brutal reality of the occupation of Palestine has become increasingly exposed, and this morning the media room was packed with supporters— Palestinians, Jewish Israelis and people from all over the world. There was an air of excitement, but also apprehension, knowing the risk these six activists were taking. Those of us who remained in the media room were in constant contact with the Freedom Riders.

The first bus drivers— seeing that Palestinians were waiting at the bus stop — passed without pause. Once a bus finally stopped and they boarded, the driver did not know what to do with Palestinians on board. He consulted with the Israeli soldiers, who had arrived on the scene after being alerted that Palestinians were standing at a Jewish bus stop. They instructed him to continue to the Hizmeh checkpoint, where the settlers were taken off the bus and soldiers got on. The Freedom Riders refused to get off, asserting their right to go to Jerusalem. One by one these non-violent protesters were roughly dragged off the bus and arrested, along with Fajr Harb, a supporter who had not been on the bus.

All the Freedom Riders did to warrant arrest was to take a bus from one place in the Occupied Territory to another, using public transportation. While Israelis are allowed to come and go as they wish in the Occupied Territory—even to settle in it in contradiction to international law— Palestinians’ movement in their own land is severely restricted, even criminalized. This kind of racism and segregation is as abhorrent today as it was 50 years ago in the Jim Crow South. As I watched the Freedom Riders dragged from the bus today, I felt like I could have been watching the police uncoil firehoses in Birmingham or whip out their clubs in Soweto.

Fadi Quran, one of the arrested freedom riders, is a 23 year old Palestinian from Ramallah. He was born in Jerusalem and is currently a graduate student at Birzeit University finishing his master degree in Democracy and Human Rights. Right before being dragged from the bus by Israeli soldiers, he said: “We are not going to give up. We are struggling for justice, freedom, and dignity and we shall overcome. Stand with us in solidarity. Please divest from the Egged and Veolia bus companies and all Israeli institutions. We will achieve freedom, justice, and dignity for this generation of Palestinians.” I have no doubt Fadi and his fellow Freedom Riders will keep boarding those buses until the day comes when all may do so freely.

One of the Freedom Riders, Prof Mazin Qumsiyeh, has posted his experience on his own blog. Click here to read it.

Please support the brave activists who risked so much asserting their rights to equality and dignity, and join us in telling the State Department to ensure their safe passage to Jerusalem on the next Freedom Ride.

Freedom for the Freedom Riders and for all,

Antonia House, Jewish Voice for Peace