Forty-seven years after the unification of Jerusalem, there are very few islands of Jewish-Arab coexistence in the city. Of these, one of the most noteworthy was the Egged bus cooperative. About half its drivers were East Jerusalem Palestinians, who say they received fair treatment, good wages and benefits – things few other East Jerusalem Palestinians enjoy.
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But the wave of violence in the city in recent months, which has included violent attacks on Arab drivers, has caused 100 of them – about a third of Egged’s Arab drivers – to quit. Forty have officially resigned, while 60 have simply not shown up for work. This has severely disrupted public transportation in Jerusalem.
“I worked for Egged for six years,” said Arafat Tahan. “It was good work. But it’s better to earn less money and not come home in a body bag.”
Last Wednesday night, yet another Arab bus driver was attacked. Two Jewish men on a scooter drove up beside his bus in the Gilo neighborhood and tried to break the windshield. When this failed, they forced the bus to stop, threw a stone that shattered the windshield and took off.
In this case, the suspects were swiftly arrested. But usually, drivers say, the police are slow to react.
Drivers say scarcely a day has passed in recent months without at least one violent attack on an Arab driver. Tamir Nir, head of the municipal transportation department, confirms this. And that doesn’t include cursing, spitting or racist remarks.
“The situation is catastrophic,” said attorney Osama Ibrahem, who represents more than 40 drivers who have been attacked – mainly in the last four months. “Not a day passes without a physical assault,” he said. “I’m not talking about verbal assaults. They don’t even count those; that’s something they’ve learned to live with.”
The breaking point was the death of driver Yusuf Hassan al-Ramouni, who was found hanged on a bus in an Egged garage last month. The autopsy concluded that he hanged himself. His fellow drivers don’t believe that; they’re convinced he was murdered by Jewish extremists. The day after Ramouni’s death on November 16, most Arab drivers stayed home.
Tahan described an incident that occurred last month. After all the other passengers had left the bus at the final stop, several young men began cursing him: “Arab son of a bitch”; “terrorist.”
“I told them, ‘If I’m a terrorist, why are you riding with me?’” he recalled. “I opened the door and, suddenly, I got a fist in the nose and four of them jumped on me. I began driving; they left the vehicle and fled. I called the police and then lost consciousness and woke up in the hospital.” Doctors diagnosed a broken eye socket and other injuries.
Nighttime is the worst
Awad Ganin was attacked by several Jewish passengers last Saturday. One summoned the others from the back of the bus, saying, “Come, this driver doesn’t like Jews,” he told Channel 2 television. “One of them hit me in the chest – while I was driving.”
He continued to the terminus and parked the bus. When he stood up, however, they attacked him. “They kicked me in the side, hit my back. They pulled me from the [steering] wheel, outside, and began shouting ‘Death to the Arabs! We’ll kill you, you Arab.’”
Drivers say certain neighborhoods are particularly problematic, including the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo and Ramot. Nighttime is the worst, and most attacks occur at the last stop, after other passengers have left.
The problem isn’t unique to Jerusalem. Drivers from the Kavim bus company say they frequently suffer verbal and physical attacks in Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit, two ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlements.
“People get on and tell me, ‘I don’t want to pay, you’re an Arab son of bitch,” said one Kavim driver, Nidal Jitt. “And there’s one street where they always throw stones at us.”
Both Jewish and Arab bus drivers are also routinely stoned in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. And Jewish drivers complain of passengers who suspect them of being Arabs and demand to see their identity cards before boarding.
All the drivers say police are slow to react. Amjad Arikat said the windows of his bus were broken several times, but “You call the police and they get back to you after an hour.”
Ala Jaljal said that after thugs tried to beat him up on August 4, police arrested him instead of his assailants, holding him in a cell for seven hours for allegedly using tear gas. When they eventually released him, they refused to let him file a complaint against his attackers, he says. “The policeman told me, ‘Go home or we’ll arrest you,’ so I went.”
Drivers also accuse Egged of not doing enough to protect them. One said he had urged managers to speak with rabbis in Har Nof, or even halt bus service to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood for a few days, but they refused. “I’m not willing to die for Egged,” he said.
Ibrahem argued that there should be a partition separating drivers from passengers. “That’s the only solution to the problem,” he said.
But that would require installing an automatic ticketing system: Currently, people buy tickets from the drivers. In the meantime, the police and Egged are considering other options, like installing security cameras in buses and placing more policemen in problem neighborhoods.
The police said in a statement that they respond to every complaint “immediately” and “professionally,” and are working closely with Egged on both open and undercover enforcement activities. “These operations have led to a decrease in incidents,” the statement added.
Egged said its bus service in Jerusalem is back to normal, adding that the cooperative “believes in coexistence and is working to recruit and train new drivers, including Arabs, to fill its ranks.” It denounced the violence against its drivers, but said this “isn’t unique to Jerusalem and doesn’t distinguish among drivers on the basis of religion, [ethnic] origin or gender.”
Egged provides support to drivers and their families, the statement continued, and relies on the police “to know how to deal with this outrageous phenomenon.”