Freedom Riders on the West Bank?


When I first heard about the planned Freedom Rides scheduled for Tuesday, November 15th to take place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories I realized that this was a brilliant tactic. Much as with the Freedom Rides that were used in the USA to dramatize the violence of Jim Crow segregation in the South, and later the Immigrant Freedom Rides to dramatize the plight of immigrants, the Palestinian Freedom Rides are about dramatizing violence—the violence that the Palestinian people face every day as a result of the Israeli Occupation.

In my visit to Palestine this past June, the problem of transportation was discussed in virtually every conversation. The limits on transportation for Palestinians tell you virtually all that you need to know about the racist Occupation. One graphic example is that there are different license plates for Israeli settlers from those of the Palestinians. A car with Palestinian plates cannot travel into Israel. And, in fact, there are roads within Occupied Palestine, on which Palestinian vehicles are prohibited. Another graphic example, which relates directly to the matter of the Freedom Rides, was explained to me at a border crossing where Palestinian workers were going into Israel for their jobs. I was informed that once in Israel they had to ALREADY have their transportation arranged. Naively I assumed that they could simply hop on a bus and go to work. Not so fast, it turns out. The Israeli buses will not stop to pick up Palestinian workers.

The Palestinian Freedom Rides aim to dramatize that there is no freedom of movement for Palestinians. They are a population suffering from an on-going occupation that has become, as I have asserted previously, a slow-motion annexation. Discriminatory transportation policies which privilege the freedom of movement of Israelis, and Israeli settlers in particular, are part of the low-intensity violence experienced by the Palestinians on a daily basis aimed at further and further marginalizing them until they feel forced to abandon their own land.

The Freedom Rides conducted by African Americans in the USA, particularly after World War II, brought the attention of the world onto Jim Crow segregation. These were not only demonstrations for rights, but were demonstrations to illustrate that the absence of rights was tied to a regime of violence and oppression. To put it another way, Jim Crow segregation was not solely or mainly the separation of African Americans and whites, but instead was the violent separation and subjugation of African Americans by a white supremacist system. This is not a matter of semantics. Apologists for the Jim Crow South attempt to portray it as simply a matter of social separation rather than a system that aimed at dispossessing the African American, thereby subverting any possibility at democracy. That this was to the advantage of the white ruling elite in the South is critical to grasp, but it cannot be overlooked that masses of whites, even contrary to their own interests, allied themselves with this system of racial subordination.

The Palestinian Freedom Riders are also displaying that the travesty of transportation in the Occupied Territories is not simply a matter of lack of rights. Instead it is illustrative of the manner in which the larger Occupation system operates with the aim of suppressing the Palestinian population in perpetuity. For this to work, not only the Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories, but the Israeli population within Israel proper have to decide that the system of racial violence must be supported, if not reinforced. This is the challenge being thrown down by the Palestinian Freedom Riders and in doing so they need solidarity from those of us committed to global justice.

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Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time racial justice, labor and international activist and writer. He is an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com, Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of Solidarity Divided. 

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