Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Travel, Protests and Tilda Swinton

While I was an ecumenical accompanier almost a year ago, I spent fifty days in Tulkarm and spent forty days at other places in Palestine and Israel.  I was encouraged to be “on the road” as much as possible and it was a wonderful way to sit back and enjoy the countryside. Transportation available to me were buses, service vehicles (mini-buses)  and taxis.  
Bus in Ramallah
A Service Van (Minibus) in the West Bank
 While in the West Bank I was only permitted to be on Palestinian roads while being transported by vehicles with Palestinian license plates.  Those roads, illegally built by the Israelis to connect the settlements to Israel, were off limits to use by vehicles without an Israeli license plate.  
I am sitting on barriers  erected by the IDF to prevent
access to the Village of Shufa because the road
was "confiscated" so that Palestinians would not have
contact with the settlers on their way to a settlement below Shufa
Without much command of Arabic I was able to travel anywhere I planned for my next destination.  As an EA I always wore my vest and always had an interesting time on the journeys.  It was absolutely amazing to experience the ease at which drivers of these vehicles were able to get me on the right bus or 7 passenger mini-bus.  It was also amazing how each driver could make change while maneuvering through narrow roads and exasperating disruptions of service directly related to checkpoints and sudden random road checks by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). 

We often were delayed by IDF soldiers who detained and searched
I rode the bus in the larger cities as well and remember a bus trip in East Jerusalem when a bus driver carefully backed up through a very crowded neighborhood and only one lane passageway.  It warmed my heart to know that he went out of his way to deliver a Palestinian woman to the front of her house when she had failed to get off the bus in time.  I never really gave it much thought as to where I sat in the buses or service vehicles.  However I did observe the cultural expectations for women sitting next to each other rather than by a man who was a stranger.  Those arrangements were worked out accordingly to everyone’s comfort and satisfaction.

As to Jerusalem, it really confuses me to think that in a city that is the birthplace of Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions there needs to be any differentiation as to who rides what buses.  The new light rail system which connects East Jerusalem settlements to the Holy Sites appears be solely for the convenience of the illegally built settlements. 
At the present time there are protests happening in and around Jerusalem which remind me of the civil rights movement which occurred in the United States during my high school and college days.  Most Americans recognize the name of Rosa Parks, the courageous woman in Alabama who refused to move to the back of the bus where African American people were required to sit.
I am including a letter I recently was made aware of from Antonia House of the Jewish Voice for Peace.

“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.
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. They also wanted to bring attention to the role of Israeli and international companies, such as Egged and Veolia, who operate these segregated 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 fire hoses 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.

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

I would guess that this very newsworthy event will not be even mentioned in the newspapers or on television in the United States.  We are so shielded from what is actually occuring in Israel or Palestine.  Protests are very common on the West Bank.  For instance, we observed weekly non-violent vigils in Tulkarm.  But rarely do the intended recipients respond.  But it is a way for those who are under occupation to continue their expression of solidarity in face of continuing oppression.

Last month I heard that Tilda Swinton, the Scottish model, had done a picture for Vogue magazine draped in a Palestinian scarf.  So I went out and purchased the November edition here in Sioux Falls expecting to find it.  I looked through every page, twice, as did my husband. 

But it was no where to be seen.  It is another example of press censorship here in the United States because other editions of the November magazines around the world have it available.  

I continue to try to be active in letting my community know about the worsening situation of the Palestinians.  And those of you who read this blog, I hope that each of you is doing what you can do to bring light to this dark page of human history.