Following last week’s Palestinian “freedom ride,” it’s time for Israeli “freedom
riders” to cross the psychological and physical barriers between the two
Drawing inspiration from the American civil rights movement of
the 1960s, a group of six Palestinians – dressed in emblematic Palestinian
checkered keffiyehs and T-shirts emblazoned with the words “dignity,” “freedom”
and “justice” boarded an Israeli bus en route from the West Bank to
Their mission: to defy the Israeli military’s restrictions on
West Bank Palestinians entering east Jerusalem, as well as a general protest
against the occupation and the limitations it imposes on their freedom of
movement on the land earmarked for their future state.
Like for Jews in
the Diaspora, who for centuries longed, at first spiritually, for “next year in
Jerusalem,” the “holy city” carries huge symbolic significance for
“I haven’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years. It’s a dream of
mine to enter Jerusalem,” one of the freedom riders, Nadeem Shirbaty, who works
as an ironsmith and activist in Hebron, told me.
After a number of failed
attempts, the Palestinian activists, accompanied by a large pack of journalists,
managed to get on a bus, but were blocked from entering Jerusalem at the Hizma
“If they try to remove us from the bus, I’ll refuse to get
off,” another freedom rider, Bassel Araj, a pharmacist from Walajeh, a small
village near Bethlehem, confided to me on the bus while various police and army
units standing outside debated what to do.
Though the protesters were
ultimately dragged off the bus and arrested, they view their action as having
been a great success because it drew international attention to their plight in
a peaceful and nonviolent manner. They vow to continue and scale up their
campaign of civil disobedience.
In addition to the legion of journalists,
a number of Israeli activists were also on the bus. They had come in solidarity
with the freedom riders and to help spread the word, though they refused to
comment on the record with me because they argued that this was a Palestinian
action and they did not want to draw attention away from it.
THERE IS is
an Israeli angle to all this. Despite the easing of the restrictions imposed
during the second intifada, Israelis, with the exception of
Palestinian-Israelis, are still barred from entering Area A – most of the major
Palestinian urban areas in the West Bank – and from Gaza.
restrictions on Israelis are far less severe than those suffered by Gazans, who
live under a blockade, and West Bank Palestinians, who have to weave their away
around settlements, settler roads and land designated as “military areas,” not
to mention the regular closures and curfews.
Nevertheless, I believe it
is time for Israeli peace activists and concerned citizens to become freedom
riders themselves to defy this unfair restriction which entrenches the
segregated reality between the two peoples, enabling extremists to take
advantage of the darkness and demonize at their leisure. It would also enable
Israelis to express solidarity with their Palestinian neighbors and raise
Israeli public awareness of the reality in the occupied
Israeli activists I have canvassed generally reacted
positively to the idea. The poet, publicist and social activist Mati Shemoelof
said it was a great idea.
“It would help challenge the myths and
misconceptions that Israelis have about Palestinians and highlight, through
direct action, the reality of segregation,” he said. The myths and
misconceptions that Shemoelof thinks Israeli freedom riders can counter include
the widespread Israeli belief that Palestinians enjoy sovereignty but cannot
govern themselves. That could help explain the paradoxical attitude that more
than half of Israelis want to return the occupied territories but have not
mobilized to do so.
Another common misconception is that Palestinians do
not know the meaning of non-violent protest.
“Most of the Israelis after
the second intifada refuse to believe that the Palestinian can be our
friends. They see them as Hamasnics [Hamas members]. Israelis can’t
relate to Palestinian life because of mass media demonization, ” said
This common fear is part of the reason why many Israelis,
either explicitly or implicitly, support the draconian restrictions imposed on
Palestinians and are not willing to travel to Palestinian areas.
Israeli I spoke to insisted that any plans to organize Israeli freedom riders
must be “coordinated with Palestinians and not seen as an Israeli civilian
invasion of sorts.”
Palestinian activists I have spoken to say that all
the ramifications and implications of the action, as well as its political
message, must be studied carefully before they would be willing to lend their
support to such Israeli freedom rides. They are concerned that such an
initiative could be hijacked or misused by settlers and extremists to justify
“It could suggest that there is equivalence between the
plight of Palestinians living under occupation and the situation of Israeli
settlers,” one concerned activist said.
Naturally, there are Israelis who
disregard the restrictions regularly. On the hostile side, there are the
militant settlers out to perpetrate “price tag” attacks on Palestinians and
On the friendly side, numerous activists and
well-meaning citizens travel to Area A without a permit. For example,
Yuval Ben-Ami, who blogs at +972, recently travelled quite extensively through
the West Bank, including to troubled Hebron, where he was surprised by the
warmth of the welcome he received from locals, but was eventually arrested by
hospitable Palestinian police who plied him with sweet coffee and handed him
over to the Israeli authorities.
Standing on the roof of a massive
shopping mall, he reflects: “I am thrilled, slowly getting my
bearings. The ability... to compare and contrast wounded Hebron with
breathing Hebron, is priceless for me. I have never held a more powerful tool
for understanding the meaning of the occupation and the actual extent of the
damage it causes.”
Gershon Baskin, the co-founder of the Israel Palestine
Center for Research and Information and a columnist with The Jerusalem Post,
also travels regularly to Area A.
“I do travel all over the West Bank and
I never ask [for] a permit for myself. I don’t think I flout [the restrictions]
but I am not willing to ask for a permit for myself,” he said.
expressed his willingness to participate in actions which challenge the
These piecemeal efforts to circumnavigate the restrictions will
not challenge the status quo. What is required is a convoy of Israeli
freedom riders travelling openly and conspicuously, with the bells and whistles
of banners, placards and T-shirts.
It is my view that one of the main
stumbling blocks on the path to peace is the absence of true human contact
between Israelis and Palestinians – for whom the vast majority of encounters are
negative ones between occupier and occupied – which creates fertile ground for
fear, distrust and hatred.
Israeli freedom riders can help overcome this
psychological barrier by crossing, in peace and compassion, the physical
barriers separating the two peoples. Whatever ultimate resolution to the
conflict prevails, the close physical proximity of Israelis and Palestinians
will require close co-operation, and freedom riders can help drive the two sides
a mile closer.
The writer is an Egyptian-Belgian freelance journalist,
blogger and writer currently living in Jerusalem.