Palestine Freedom Riders, a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In early November 2011, six Palestinians boarded a bus in the occupied West Bank, which was headed toward Jerusalem. A line of press cars followed. At the boarder, the bus was stopped by the Israel police and the Palestinians were arrested. It is illegal for Palestinians to enter Jerusalem, which is in Israel. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a doctor, author and Palestinian activist was among the arrested. A few hours later he and the others were released. The daring act made a statement that recalls another time in another country.

I was reminded of the bold actions of the Freedom Riders in the US, back in the 1960s. The poignant words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still resonate with his stoic call for the freedom of all human beings regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. Denying Palestinians entrance to the nearby city of Jerusalem, with its historic churches and mosques, because they are Palestinians (and therefore suspect) seems a clear case of discrimination.

A few days later, Sherrill and I drove with Mazin and his wife Jessie to Ramallah for a meeting to evaluate the results of the brazen act. The trip from where we were living in Bethlehem is a distance of about 70 kilometers and should take no more than 25 minutes to drive if taken directly. But we could not take the direct route, which passes through Jerusalem. Palestinians are prohibited from entering Jerusalem without a permit from Israel. License plate color; white with green lettering distinguish West Bank Palestinians from Jerusalemites and Jews living in the [illegal] West Bank settlements who are issued yellow license plates and permit passage on “Jewish only” roads that connect directly to Jerusalem.

Leaving Ramallah, Mazin takes the circuitous alternate road that circumvents Jerusalem. The route takes us along a narrow road with dizzying hairpin turns. Navigating a winding poorly lit mountainside road in the dark takes over an hour. Privileged, Jewish colonials with yellow plates ease along a well-maintained direct road that routes them directly from settlement homes to Jerusalem. Separate roads based on ethnicity? I recalled the days when blacks rode in the back of the bus, had separate drinking fountains, and could not use the same rest rooms as whites.

In spite of Israel’s blatant acts of discrimination, Palestinians will not bend to Israel’s abuses of basic human rights. The young are learning from our history; and taking the lead from America’s revolt against injustice – whether the “tea party” tax revolt or laws that fly in the face of civilized values of fair play – Palestinians vow to continue resisting against injustice and discrimination.

Like the US of the 60s, Israel will have to grow up! It took generations for the United States to realize not all its citizens were equal in rights or treatment. We made amends, fought for and passed laws against inequity based on race, gender and ethnicity. Like Israel, we too had called ourselves a democracy, but lied. We’re still working on getting it right. When will Israel start working on real democracy with justice for all? I believe, many are.