Last week, six courageous Palestinians attempted to defy racism, segregation and apartheid by boarding Jewish settler-only buses in the hopes of reaching Jerusalem, a city off limits to Palestinians in the West Bank.
Activists and bloggers, intellectuals and independent journalists all supported the Palestinian Freedom Riders for their US civil rights movement-inspired act. Emotions ran high as it was clearly emphasized that racial supremacy still exists in this day and age, and highlighted were the harrowing parallels between oppression in the Jim Crow US South and in Palestine.
But crucial differences remain — for one thing, the indigenous population of Palestine is occupied by a colonial settler population; for another, there are two separate and completely different systems for Palestinians and Israelis, such as military and civilian courts, respectively, rather than a two-tiered system.
However, the symbolic, media-friendly act — and its debatable relevance to the average Palestinian — begs some important questions.
There is no doubt that what the six Freedom Riders set out to achieve was of significance. They challenged Israel’s arbitrary regime of exclusive settler-only networks that serve the illegal settlements throughout the West Bank; they highlighted the human rights abusing complicity of two companies, Veolia and Egged, which operate dozens of the segregated bus lines; and they fought for an essential basic right: freedom of movement. Apartheid is very much alive in occupied Palestine. It is our reality that we breathe through our congested lungs every minute of our waking lives.
Anti-colonial vs civil rights struggle
The Freedom Rides were intended as an anti-colonial act mirroring a previous and successful civil rights one. But our struggle is not a civil rights one. It is a struggle against a foreign occupation. We must be calling for the liberation of an indigenous population under a devastating settler-colonial rule, one that has continued to ethnically cleanse, commit large scale massacres, impose collective punishment, imprison and restrict the movement of Palestinians for decades.
The intentions of the Freedom Rides were transparent and clear, as stated by the second press release in which they stated that they do not seek to desegregate the settler buses, as the “presence of these colonizers and the infrastructure that serves them is illegal and must be dismantled” (“Palestinian Freedom Riders to ride settler buses to Jerusalem,” 13 November 2011).
But by using a tactic specific to the US civil rights movement, one risks the interpretation that Palestinians are asking for the same rights as settlers.
As one young activist critical of the Freedom Rides commented to me: “Do you obstruct settlements by demanding to get on a bus? What you are demanding when you attempt to ride a bus is the right to ride it, not the right to say I don’t want this bus here to start with. You don’t ask to ride the bus if you don’t want the bus in your neighborhood.”
She added, “There is an illegal railway in Jerusalem constructed on [illegally-occupied] territory that endangers children as [trains] pass by in residential areas … if I were to object to this train’s existence, do I make a protest and ask to ride on the train or do I sleep on the train tracks to stop it from coming to my area?”
Indeed, many Palestinians take issue with settlers factoring in a key role in the Freedom Rides event, saying that it blurs the lines of normalization of occupation and apartheid.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement defines normalization as “the participation in any project, initiative or activity, in Palestine or internationally, that aims (implicitly or explicitly) to bring together Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis (people or institutions) without placing as its goal resistance to and exposure of the Israeli occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people” (“ Israel’s Exceptionalism: Normalizing the Abnormal,” the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Boycott of Israel, 31 October 2011).
Although the boycott call has been endorsed by nearly 200 Palestinian civil society organizations and political parties, the working definition of normalization of the boycott movement differs from many Palestinians’ personal definitions of normalization. Some view any association with settlers as normalization, others a bit more nuanced but still don’t like the idea, and still others consider it within the specific context in question. The reactions like that of the young activist I mentioned exemplify this concern.
Honor Palestinian resistance
The positive coverage in the Western corporate media shows that the Freedom Rides action appealed to foreign consumption. But it’s not up to Palestinian resistance to appease the tastes of Western audiences. We have our own lively and proud history of resistance stretching back to the days of British Mandate rule, exemplified by popular strikes, boycotts and demonstrations.
Moreover, tactics tailored to western tastes and reactions distract from mobilizing Palestinians on the ground into an effective popular resistance movement. The first Palestinian intifada was a true popular uprising in every sense. Palestinian society collectively organized strikes and rallied together. The level of cooperation was present in families hiding resistance fighters, and in mosques and private organizations hosting educational studies after the universities and schools were shut down.
Today, activism and popular resistance isn’t centralized but, rather, is scattered throughout particular villages and parts of cities. For an act that carries huge potential and holds meaningful implications by connecting the current reality of Palestinians to the history of other oppressed societies, there should have been more awareness on the Palestinian street of its occurrence.
The Freedom Rides event was very exclusive. This is in stark contrast to the recent Freedom Waves mini flotilla campaign, where activists were directly involved with producing, translating, revising and distributing fact sheets and press releases and statements for the UN and mobilizing people on the street and engaging with the media. It was a microcosm of popular resistance as activists from throughout historic Palestine all worked together efficiently to send the message of ending the blockade on Gaza and demanding protection for the passengers, and this message was directed not only at the West and foreign press but to Palestinians as well.
Any act of civil resistance should be inclusive of many sectors of Palestinians. The same efforts that the Freedom Riders took to coordinate with organizations in the US and elsewhere should have also happened in Palestine.
And while the history of other oppressed peoples unquestionably offers its lessons to us as an occupied population, we should be well aware of our own unique history of resistance, and the need for our movement to encompass all sectors of Palestinian society and the historic demands of our anti-colonial struggle.