Quite a large number of people awaited the no. 148 Egged bus that stopped in Kokhav Ya'akov junction on Tuesday afternoon. One could immediately recognize that these weren't the regular passengers from the neighboring settlements.
"You can't believe what's going on here," whispered one religious man into his cellular phone, "it's unbelievable." The man was obviously referring to the mob of journalists – with their multi-sized cameras, microphones and notepads – surrounding five men and a woman who were waiting at the station.
These were six Palestinians who decided to ride to Jerusalem on an Egged bus, that usually carries mostly settlers, without the required permits, and through the Hizmeh checkpoint, which is altogether off-limits for West Bank Palestinians.
This was the first in a series of civil disobedience actions planned to protest what the organizers call "demographic segregation," which forbids Palestinians from reaching East Jerusalem, while allowing a two-tier transportation system in the West Bank: one for Israelis and one for Palestinians. The protestors were inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement's Freedom Riders, who boarded buses fifty years ago to protest segregation in the southern states.
"We're part of the common human history of struggling for freedom," said Basel al-Araj, a pharmacist from al-Wallaja. He was arrested six times during the demonstrations against the separation barrier which disconnects his village from its lands and neighboring Palestinian towns.
It seems that the security forces had no prior information about the event. A military jeep showed up after 20 minutes, before the Border Control, police and what seemed to be a settlement security vehicle arrived.
The Palestinian Freedom Riders assumed that the settlers would be violent. Badee' Dwak, a social worker from Hebron, was the first to express his bewilderment, claiming that "the settlers here [near Ramallah] are quiet, not like ours in Hebron."
Of the six, only Fadi Qurun – one of the Palestinian March 15th movement leaders – had never been arrested, except for a detention of several hours after a Nabi Saleh demonstration. "Being arrested is an integral part of our existence as Palestinians under Israeli occupation," they said as they boarded the bus followed by an army of reporters, "We're not special."
The 15-minute ride until the Hizmeh checkpoint passed quietly. After they revealed a flag and some placards, one of the passengers swore at them. Dwak retorted, "You're religious, you should be ashamed of yourself."
A foreign reporter asked a passenger from Ofra for his opinion. He answered that Arabs could ride anywhere in the country, but Jews can't drive to Ramallah. Other journalists explained to her that the speaker was Hagai Segal, who was part of the infamous Jewish Underground in the eighties.
At Hizmeh checkpoint policemen demanded that two of the riders get off the bus, but they refused. The next effort came after the settlers descended, in a parking lot. Policeman dragged Dwak to the steps of the bus, but then left without him. Police officers, of different ranks came and went. Some of them threatened the six, and others pleaded with them.
Huwaida Arraf, a lawyer and one of the six Freedom Riders on the bus, offered the officers the "honorary passport" she received from the Palestinians for taking part in the Gaza flotilla last year. They didn't know they were arresting an Israeli and U.S. citizen.
Up until they were arrested and dragged away, the the Freedom Riders insisted: "We have the right to reach Jerusalem. Why doesn't a settler need an entry permit? We do not obey apartheid rules. We're Palestinian, and this is Palestine."