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By Arieh O'Sullivan
They were expecting violence, segregation and arrest.
Instead, six Palestinian activists were allowed to board and ride an Israeli bus in the West Bank in a highly publicized attempt to evoke the freedom rides of the U.S. civil rights movement.
"If we make it to Jerusalem then it'll be a sign that the Israelis have become very savvy about their image. If we do make it we want the world to know that this is an exception," said Huweida Arraf, a lawyer and human rights activist, who was one of the riders, speaking at a pre-boarding news conference.
The six, dressed in white T-shirts bearing the word "Freedom" and wearing black and white kaffiyehs, did make it as far as the entry to Jerusalem, where Israeli security personnel stopped them and turned them back because they did not have permits to enter Israel.
"We want the world to notice the apartheid segregation we live in under Israeli occupation," Arraf said.
The Palestinians had kept the actual site of their planned boarding of the Israeli bus secret out of fear of what they said could be violence by Israeli residents in the West Bank who opposed their presence.
Trailed by some 100 journalists, television crews and onlookers, the six Palestinians chose the Israeli town of Kochav Ya'akov, southeast of the West Bank city of Ramallah, for their action. Bewildered residents moved aside as the six waited for bus No. 148 -- linking Jewish settlements situated on land acquired in the 1967 Six Day War with Jerusalem.
The Palestinians want the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for their future state, but during four decades of Israeli rule some 350,000 Israelis have moved into the area as well as east Jerusalem (which the Palestinians also claim) and have constructed some 120 towns.
Palestinians not only want the Israelis to go back to pre-1967 Israel, but object in the meantime to what they say is a policy of segregation that has created separate roads and transportation networks. Israel says these are needed to protect its citizens against Palestinian terror attacks.
"If I got on one of their buses they would slaughter me," said an Israeli who would only give his first name, Elhanan. "It's a gimmick. The Arabs ride on our buses all of the time."
A number of buses drove by without stopping or opening their doors to let on passengers. Eventually one did. Pushing their way through a swarm of cameraman, the six managed to board. The bewildered driver sold them a ticket and they took their seats among the Israelis.
Once on board, some held signs saying: "Freedom" "Justice" and "We Shall Overcome." The other passengers ignored them without any incidents.
The campaign sought to echo the 1960s-era Freedom Riders campaign in the southern U.S. and recall civil rights heroes that much of the world admires such as Rosa Parks, who in an early protest refused to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, AL, and Martin Luther King Jr.
In its day, the American Freedom Riders movement sent out activists to ride on racially segregated buses and challenge local laws. The Freedom Rides and the violent reaction they provoked brought attention and credibility to the civil rights movement, ushering in n era of equal-rights legislation and changing attitudes toward black-white relations.
"In the 1960s U.S. South, black people had to sit in the back of the bus. In occupied Palestine, Palestinians are not even allowed on the bus," a statement by the Palestinian group said. The movement's publicity material included an interview with an activist from the 1960s.
But one Israeli watching the episode on bus No. 148 said there was no comparison between the two situations.
"They said they were reenacting the ride of the freedom riders from the U.S. civil rights movement and were acting in the non-violent spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. I told them, 'From what I understand, [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas is no Martin Luther King and we aren't any white supremacist government'," said passenger Haggai Segal, a resident of Kochav Ya'akov.
But Arraf dismissed charges that Israeli Jews were barred or are in danger when riding Palestinian transportation.
"Jewish people ride on our buses all of the time. They are welcome as long as they don't come as occupiers," she said.
Israeli law bars its citizens from entering the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian Freedom Riders had hoped to make it to Jerusalem, but their plans were dashed. Approaching the Hizmeh junction outside the city, Israeli security officers blocked the bus and boarded it to examine the passenger identity cards. With more than 100 journalists circling about, the Palestinians refused to get off the bus and police had it moved to a field. After about half an hour, police removed them.
Palestinians Evoke '60s Freedom Riders in Bus Protest | Global Viewpoint