Amid Jerusalem Violence, Arab Workers Pay With Their Livelihoods

Twenty-seven East Jerusalem bus drivers quit their jobs, other go on strike, after fellow driver found hanged in bus; 'people are frightened.'

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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An Egged bus in Jerusalem.
An Egged bus in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Taxi driver Riyad Jatt of the Silwan neighborhood says he stopped to pick up two female passengers near the entrance to Jerusalem Thursday morning.

“They asked me, are you Jewish or Arab? When I told them I was an Arab they didn’t get in,” he says, adding that after 20 similar incidents he stopped counting. “One man stopped me outside the municipality, looked at me and said no and got out. In [ultra-Orthodox neighborhood] Mea She’arim two women wanted to get in, saw I was an Arab and walked away.”

Palestinian taxi drivers make up at least half the city’s taxi drivers; in a sense, they’re on the very frontline of the confrontation tearing the city apart. It’s hard to find a driver who says he hasn’t been cursed at or beaten up.

Since the attack on a synagogue Tuesday, cruising for passengers in West Jerusalem has become a humiliating and even dangerous experience. Many drivers say they’ve stopped working or have given up working at night.

“People say they don’t want to be the next victim,” says Jatt. As a colleague of his puts it: “I haven’t worked for three days, there’s no work. Nobody comes into the taxi.”

Twenty-seven East Jerusalem bus drivers quit

Twenty-seven East Jerusalem bus drivers quit their jobs on Thursday and dozens of Palestinian drivers employed by bus company Egged have gone on strike for fear of being attacked. The walkout began after driver Yusuf Hassan al-Ramouni was found hanged in his bus in the capital this week.

The bus drivers say Ramouni was murdered by Jewish extremists, despite the coroner’s report that he had committed suicide.

“People are frightened,” says Ala Jalgal, a driver who quit. “They have children; some of their wives tore up their clothes so they couldn’t go to work.”

Egged spokesman Ron Ratner commented on the drivers’ walkout. “In the last few days a handful of drivers from the eastern part of the city have chosen to stop working at Egged for personal reasons,” he said.

“It’s a big privilege to be an Egged driver, and we don’t stand in the way of anyone who gives it up. The drivers’ feelings following the suicide are understandable, but even in these tense days they’re in no danger if they go back to work.”

As tensions have increased in Jerusalem in recent months — and climbed in recent days — Arab taxi drivers say they have been the victims of verbal and physical attacks. Employees in various types of businesses are being fired and others are afraid to go to work. Social media are spreading the hatred — among Jews, there are demands that Arabs be fired and businesses that employ them be boycotted.

On Thursday, right-wing activists and organizations launched a campaign to have Arab workers fired in Jerusalem. Some organizations disseminated lists of businesses that don’t employ Arabs.

On social networks, businesses have announced that they have fired their Arab staff and seek to employ Jews only. Many posts are calling for a boycott of businesses that don’t do the same.

Supermarket-chain owner Rami Levy has come under similar pressure; posts on social networks are calling for boycotts of his stores. But Levy said no worker of his would be fired for being an Arab; he accused his competitors of conspiring against him.

'What if the janitor is a terrorist?'

Meanwhile, parents in the religious state school Harel in the Ramot neighborhood demanded that a Palestinian janitor be replaced.

“It’s not because he’s an Arab, but he’s a young man — we don’t know what he’s done or where he comes from. I’m not judging; he could be a good person, but he could also be a terrorist,” says Gilad Cohen, head of the school’s parents’ committee.

“We’re demanding that he be replaced by a woman so that if something happens, heaven forbid, the school staff — all female teachers but two — can at least react. I get text messages and calls all day from worried parents. One mother wrote: ‘What if he decides to slaughter an entire class? Ten kids will die by the time the security guard shows up.’ On the other hand, some parents are urging us to stop the ranting and raving.”

According to Paz Cohen, the head of the city’s parents’ committee, “I can understand the fear, but you don’t fire a person because of his nationality. Still, today more and more people from the mainstream are saying it’s legitimate.”

For his part, Mayor Nir Barkat has spoken out against firing workers because of their origin.

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