Israel Pulse

Jerusalem's Arab bus drivers speak out

Article Summary
Jerusalem has seemingly calmed down after several weeks of unrest, but Arab bus drivers tell Al-Monitor that they are constantly subjected to insults and attacks by extremist Jewish passengers.

The series of terrorist attacks and violent clashes in Jerusalem in recent months, variously labeled as “The Al-Aqsa Intifada” and “The Jerusalem Intifada,” among other things, has fortunately abated without igniting an all-out confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. In retrospect, the meeting among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State John Kerry and King Abdullah of Jordan in Amman on Nov. 13 seems to have been the turning point, following which the level of tension decreased.

The effort to calm the situation made by Israel and the Palestinian Authority have borne fruit, and the situation in Jerusalem is under control. But the fragile routine of life in the city has not been fully restored, and any event is liable to rekindle the flames. Numerous police and border patrol forces are deployed in the streets to serve as a buffer between Jews and Arabs, especially in the Old City of Jerusalem and the holy places. Anyone walking through the alleys of the Old City, en route to the Western Wall or the Al-Aqsa Mosque, would notice the hundreds of soldiers and policemen whose job is simply to prevent provocation or even contact between Jews and Arabs.

The tension still felt in the city has been notably reflected in the moves taken by the Arab bus drivers from East Jerusalem, who left their jobs at Egged (Israel Transport Cooperative Society Ltd.) after Palestinian bus driver Yousef Hassan Ramouni had been found dead Nov. 17, his body hanging at an Egged parking lot in the city. His controversial death — in Israel, it was claimed that he had committed suicide, while the Palestinians alleged that he was the victim of a hate crime — exposed a complex set of threats, attacks and humiliation on the part of Jewish passengers experienced by the Arab drivers over a long period. About 20% of the city's Arab bus drivers quit their jobs, or just have not shown up for work since, in protest of the violence against them. In the last two weeks, some of them resumed their jobs as bus drivers, only to discover that the phenomenon has not disappeared.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, three Arab bus drivers who spoke on condition of anonymity, A., N. and D., described the harsh atmosphere, the attacks and humiliations that have become a matter of routine. These events testify, more than anything else, to the sizzling hatred between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. Two of the drivers have already returned to work, while one of the three would rather stay home and wait for developments that would allow him to safely go back to work and earn a livelihood.

“I decided to go back to work, because I have no other way to support my family,” said A., one of the drivers. “I have seven children; all of them are going to school. The elder boy told me, ‘Dad, we can get along, as long as you stay alive.’”

The interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Have you ever been in fear for your life?

A.:  Sometimes. But mostly, I was afraid that I would lose control. A Jewish passenger wearing a skullcap gets on the bus, and spits in my face. He then smirks and tells me: “You dirty Arab; you terrorist! Go and find work in Gaza.”

Al-Monitor:  How many such attacks have you experienced?

A.:  More than three. But curses such as “You dirty Arab” are an almost daily routine.

Al-Monitor:  Have other passengers protested against this behavior?

A.:  Yes, quite a lot. But no one wants to fight with them. Usually, they just say, “Leave him alone; he is only the driver.”

Al-Monitor:  How do you respond?

A:  I wipe off the spit from my face, and keep driving. What else can I do? If I argue or come back at my attacker, it'll be even worse — for me and for everyone.

Al-Monitor:  N., you still have not returned to work. How do you feel about the recent events?

N:  I'm not sure if I’ll go back to work. I've had enough of this. I've seen enough of it. A friend of mine was attacked by three children who threatened to hit him on the head with an iron club. It was a miracle that there were soldiers on the bus who stopped the attackers. He, too, quit his job, and he is still afraid to go back to work.

Al-Monitor:  The terrorist attacks in the city have stopped. Do you see any improvement in the atmosphere?

N:  I believe that nothing has changed. True, they did call me from Egged and told me that there were no longer any such things, that the company was not closing its eyes to any case [of violence], that any such case should be reported, and that the company would duly file a complaint with the police.

A:  I for one think that the attacks have declined in number. Yet, to say that there are no longer any such events, that it’s all over and done with — it's simply not true.

Al-Monitor:  Are you experiencing any pressures on the part of your own social environment, as well?

D:  Well, I cannot say that I have ever been called a “traitor.” They have never explicitly accused me of being an “amil” (in Arabic, a collaborator with the Israelis). But still, it isn’t at all pleasant to see army and police forces surrounding your neighborhood, shooting, and hurling stink bombs, Jews burning a child alive, and, at the same time, to continue working with the Jews as if everything is just fine. No. it's certainly not right. However, I have never been told that I had to stop working. I myself felt that I just could not go on like that.

Al-Monitor:  Is the Palestinian Authority involved in any way in the matter?

D:  There was one big mess, but I would rather not say anything more.

Al-Monitor:  What sort of mess? Have you been pressured?

D:  I cannot say. Let’s skip it. It’s just fine now.

Al-Monitor:  How have the Jewish drivers reacted?

A:  Jewish friends of mine called to express their sympathy. They said that they realized what we were going through, and that the police and Egged must protect us.

Al-Monitor:  And have they done so?

A:  I believe that they have done in Egged whatever they could do, but I cannot say the same about the Police.

Al-Monitor:  Can you estimate how many [Arab] bus drivers have already gone back to work?

A:  Quite a few are back behind the wheel, but many others are still afraid to return to work.

Al-Monitor:  Are you yourself afraid?

A:  Well, what can I say? I’ve got used to it.

Egged spokesman Ron Ratner’s comment in response: We are showing a lot of empathy, sensitivity and support for those drivers who are harassed, and we wrap them with all our love, as Egged believes in and advocates [Jewish-Arab] coexistence. We condemn any violence, and we expect the Israeli police to uproot the phenomenon. Egged has decided to install [CCTV] cameras on its buses, especially on the buses running along the seam zone, to monitor what’s happening inside the buses and thus deter [potential] attackers of bus drivers and provide those who feel exposed to violence with a sense of protection.

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Found in: palestinians, jersusalem, israeli-palestinian conflict, israeli-arabs, israel, extremists, discrimination, arab-israeli conflict

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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