Despite all the hype, the No. 236 bus line to Ariel is one of the quietest in the country. Sunday afternoon most of the passengers were Palestinians, dozing on their way home from work in Israel. Settlers and students at Ariel University were keeping a relatively low profile, listening to their earphones.
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I wait with the Palestinian laborers at the junction under the Geha Bridge. Most are handymen in paint-spattered clothes. The Arab driver opens the door. When there’s room, Jews sit next to Jews and Arabs are with Arabs.
I sit next to Samir, who’s from Azun near Qalqilyah. He hasn’t heard the latest news about Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon wanting to prohibit Arabs from riding on Israeli buses. But he knows the situation of Palestinians on the bus line from the Tel Aviv area to the West Bank is problematic.
“They say we take up space on the bus, but we don’t ride for free. I have no problem, let them give us our own buses. It all shows what democracy is worth to you guys – democracy for the Jews,” he says.
A father of six, Samir works mainly as a plasterer and painter. This year many Palestinians have been killed in work accidents on the altar of the Israeli real-estate market, and he is afraid.
“I won’t get up on the scaffolding. I won’t go higher than the third floor,” Samir says. “Once a woman told me that we’re taking up space on the bus. I thought to myself: It’s not enough you’re occupying our land and taking our lives – you want our place on the bus. People see Arabs and think we fell from the sky. Believe me, together we could have made peace and the Middle East would be better than America, but for that you need to use your brain.”
Samir adds that if he doesn’t take the subsidized settlers’ bus, which costs 11 shekels (about $3), he will have to take a Bedouin van, which costs three times as much.
“So, tell me: I work for Jews and they make me coffee and I meet their children and they’re not afraid,” says Samir. “So why are they afraid of me on the bus?”
'Never heard of attack'
Behind Samir is Durad from Nablus, a father of four. I ask him if he understands that some people think he’s dangerous.
“We’ve been riding the bus for years and I never heard of an attack. One time they shouted at us ‘stinking laborers.’ I said: ‘What can we do? We’re working for you, not for somebody else. If you don’t like it don’t sit next to me. I am a person just like you and I pay just like you.”
Durad says while the Russians are sometimes mean to the Arabs, the latter are afraid of the settlers, “who look at us like we’re not human. And all we want is to make a living. There are people who could sleep in Israel but they come home to take care of their elderly mother and father,” he explains.
Ahmed, from Al-Zawiyah, is younger than the two other men we spoke to. He studied English at An-Najah National University in Nablus and sent his resume around, but did not find work. Now he does renovations in Israel. “We’ve been traveling this bus for years,” he says. “Did you ever hear of somebody killing anyone? Raping anyone?”
At the back of the bus, Khaled sits on one side and a couple of Russian origin on the other.
“People who don’t want us to ride with them have a black heart,” he says. “I want peace. It has to be understood that they can’t get rid of me and I can’t get rid of you.”
After he gets off, I ask the Russian couple, who don’t really want to be interviewed, whether they agree with Khaled. At first they say yes, but then they admit they still prefer separate buses. “We missed two buses because they were full of them,” they tell me.
At first the Israelis don’t want to talk to me, but after the Arabs got off, a guy with a skullcap sitting near the driver says: “I’m simply afraid to get on this bus and I try not to because of the Palestinians.”
I tell him that everyone I talked to was nice and he says: “You’re right, most of them are fine. But what will I do if one of them is not fine, and perpetuates an attack?”
I tell him there haven’t been any attacks and he counters: “I don’t want to be the first.”
The driver says there has never been a problem with the Arab passengers. “They’ll do anything not to lose their [work] permit,” he explains, adding, “sometimes people yell at them and they don’t respond, so they can continue working.”
On the way back, on the No. 186 bus route, there are no Palestinians. “Because of them there’s no room,” an older Jewish woman explains to me. “If one of them in a million stows something down below [in the luggage compartment], it can be dangerous. You can’t trust them. And it’s hard with their smell and their noise,” she says.
The woman adds that the Arabs don’t really have to get on the shared bus, but do it to entertain themselves: “They have other lines. People say they use this line because there are pretty girls on it.”
A young woman named Katya who studies computers at university says: “They never do anything, but what they might do is a matter of concern.” When asked about separate lines, she says she’s in favor “if it is possible,” but then adds: “If the choice is for them not to have a bus, then no, because they have to get to work. But on Thursdays, when they go back to their families – there’s no place to sit. They take up the whole bus from the first stop on.”
The most symbolic moment happened in a conversation with a guy named Yossi, who is of Ethiopian origin and is studying biology student at university. He explains that he’s for separate buses although he thinks it might lead to terror attacks. When I tell him that Arabs feel that such a move is like apartheid, he says: “We pay taxes on these buses and on these roads so they will be for citizens.”
While we are talking, a woman soldier gets on the bus at the checkpoint to look for Palestinians, and speaks to Yossi and a Mizrahi guy with a black skullcap, holding a prayer book, to check their accents. Yossi has to show his identity card. She ignores me, the blond woman nearby, the Russian women at the front.
I tell Yossi that it starts with buses for Palestinians and it will end with buses for people like him.
“We have to fight that too,” he says.