REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -- Calling themselves Freedom Riders inspired by the U.S. civil rights movement, six Palestinian activists set off Tuesday with media in tow to try to board an Israeli bus headed from the West Bank to Jerusalem.
West Bank residents are not allowed into Jerusalem without an Israeli army-issued permit, so the activists said they did not know whether they would be refused permission to board the bus serving Israeli settlements, forced off at a checkpoint or possibly beaten by fellow passengers.
“Fifty years after the U.S. Freedom Riders staged mixed-race bus rides through the roads of the segregated American South, Palestinian Freedom Riders will be asserting their right to liberty and dignity ... through peaceful civil disobedience,” said Hwaida Arraf, the lone female member of the group.
The activists, wearing T-shirts with slogans such as “We shall overcome,” “Dignity,” and “Freedom,” left Ramallah at the head of a convoy of media cars. They were headed for a bus stop outside Psagot, one of more than 200 Jewish settlements built in the West Bank since the 1967 Mideast War.
The drive should have taken only about five minutes, but the convoy had to navigate a labyrinth of backs roads through villages after the closure of several West Bank routes to Palestinian commuters. More than 40 minutes later, the activists reached the bus stop.
Three buses passed the group and did not stop. Some Israelis, who were also trying to catch a bus, decided to go elsewhere. Others cursed the Palestinian activists as they drove by in cars.
Israeli forces sent reinforcements to the location, but they tried to organize traffic rather than interfere with the activists.
After about 20 minutes, a bus pulled up at some distance to pick up Israelis. The Palestinian activists were quick to walk over and start boarding. Each paid their fare and settled into an empty seat. Dozens of journalists also boarded.
The bus, which was fortified with bulletproof windows, started on the road to Jerusalem, trailed by Israeli police vehicles.
Ten minutes later, it arrived at a checkpoint, the last frontier between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers boarded the bus to check passengers' papers. Normally, the Israeli bus would have been waved through.
The soldiers took the identity documents of the Palestinian passengers and ordered them to leave. When they refused, police reinforcements were called. The Israeli passengers disembarked as it was clear the bus wasn't going anywhere for a while.
One Israeli passenger described the scene as “like a movie,” with all the cameras recording everything.
An hour later, the bus was ordered to leave the checkpoint, where a long line of cars had stacked up waiting to cross into Jerusalem.
The bus was taken to an empty nearby parking lot, where police pulled the Palestinian activists off and arrested them.
-- Maher Abukhater
Photo: A Palestinian activist, right, argues with an Israeli settler after boarding a bus bound for Jerusalem on Tuesday. Credit: Atef Safadi / European Pressphoto Agency