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Palestinians board Israeli settler buses to protest travel restrictions

JERUSALEM — Six Palestinian activists were arrested Tuesday when they attempted to enter Jerusalem on buses designated for Israelis alone.

The group was hoping to bring attention to Israeli restrictions on Palestinians' freedom of movement in the West Bank by invoking the spirit of American civil rights activists who rode buses in the South in the 1960s in protest racial discrimination.

"We are like them, exactly like them," said Huwaida Arraf, who holds dual American and Palestinian citizenship and was one of the organizers of Tuesday's protest. "They saw an inequality. They saw segregation and racism and they fought it through nonviolent actions. We want to show how unfair the Israeli system is, the system we are forced to live under."

For the six activists, including 37-year-old Badiya Dwaik, it was the first time they had boarded the buses they'd seen pass by their homes their entire lives.

"I want to show them that as a human being I should be given equal rights," Dwaik said. "The Israelis, they travel to the Palestinian areas to build their settlements. But Palestinians are not allowed to travel freely, we are controlled by them like rats in a cage."

Israel operates two bus lines in the West Bank that run through the circuitous mountains and into Jerusalem. Only Israelis, however, are allowed to use the bus system. Palestinians have developed their own, makeshift public transportation system comprised of minivans and small buses.

Most Palestinians also are not allowed to leave the West Bank and travel into East Jerusalem, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live and which Palestinians believe should be part of any future Palestinian state.

Israelis say there are valid reasons for the restrictions. Just five years ago, Palestinian suicide bombers regularly targeted Israeli buses, killing dozens in each attack. The memory of the bus bombings — which took place on crowded city streets as well as in remote settlements — continue to haunt many Israelis.

"I am scared of them, the Palestinians. I just don't feel I can trust them," said Margalit Amit. "Maybe these ones are OK, who knows? But there are others with bad intentions, who would take the opportunity to kill and murder. Who is to say they would not board the Israeli buses, too?"

Amit, 41, was standing at the bus stop in the settlement of Kochav Yakov when the six Palestinians, flanked by nearly 100 journalists, waited to board the bus. Amit, who lives in the nearby settlement of Rimonim, said she was "scared at the sight" of the Palestinians.

"To me, they just conjure terrorists. Maybe that is not the right thing to say. But we lived under the bombings daily and that is the scar I now bear," she said.

She decided to return home rather then board her bus to Jerusalem.

After several buses refused to stop or open their doors, the six Palestinian activists managed to board one of the buses departing for Jerusalem.

"We do not know what they will do to us. They could have refused to let us on, they could attack us once we are on the bus," said Arraf, breathless as she secured a seat on the bus. "We could be arrested, beaten, we are not sure what will happen."

Many of the Jewish passengers said they were surprised to learn that Palestinians were not allowed on the Israeli bus system.

"I don't really think it's fair or right for us to do that to them," said Odelia Hangar, 17, who lives in Shilo, a settlement about 28 miles from Jerusalem, and was sitting one row in front of the Palestinian passengers. "If they want to ride the bus to Jerusalem, why shouldn't they?"

She was swiftly answered by two passengers in adjacent seats.

"That's naive. It's a security concern, and they can't allow people to break the law whenever they want," said Maya Shemesh, 15.

Minutes later, Hangar watched in silence as Israeli police officers boarded the bus and began questioning the Palestinians. It took several hours for Israeli security officers to remove the six from the bus and place them under arrest.

Hangar stayed to watch.

"I guess I've never seen anything like this, so they've succeeded in making a point. I'm just not sure it will change anything," she said.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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