Bus driver Amir Kabega was at the wheel of a bus on the Egged company's No. 83 route two weeks ago when a motorcycle blocked the street near the Rishon Letzion central bus station. It was seemly a common occurrence on an Israeli street that would end uneventfully. But this time, after an argument ensued between the bus driver and cyclist over the obstruction of traffic, the cyclist suddenly broke through a door on the bus and stabbed Kabega three times. He required stitches to his shoulder.
This assault was the latest in a long string of attacks on bus drivers across the country. Just two weeks before, police arrested a 19-year-old Jerusalem man on suspicion of attacking a Kavim company bus driver in the West Bank settlement of Modi’in Ilit after the driver refused to wait for the man and his friend at a bus stop.
Earlier this month, a bus driver in Ma’aleh Adumim was lightly injured after being attacked by a passenger who was demanding that he turn up the air conditioner. In March, young men in Tiberias were filmed kicking a driver for Superbus and another driver from the company was assaulted at his home after refusing to let a passenger with an electric bicycle onto his bus. In January, a driver was attacked by a man who refused to put on a mask.
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These are just a few examples of the incidents this year alone.
According to the Koach Laovdim trade union, to which drivers for Egged, Superbus and the Dan bus company belong, thousands of bus drivers are verbally and physically attacked each year. Many of them are Arab, and some assaults include racist slurs. Many of the incidents arise from passengers' refusal to pay a fare or the presence of drunken passengers on night routes. Since the beginning of 2021, there have been 49 documented cases of severe violence against bus drivers, 20 of which resulted in their hospitalization.
Nur al-Din, a Superbus driver in Beit Shemesh, told Haaretz how he was assaulted in May after six young men had gotten on his bus one night.
“Only some of them paid. They sat in the back, didn’t put on masks and made noise. I made a comment and they started cursing me. I called the police, and while I was talking to them on the phone, the men approached me. They spat on me and hit me. It made me lose control of the bus. They fled. I filed a complaint and they still haven’t been caught. In response, we suspended the line for one day. I’ve been with this company for seven years and this isn’t the first time that something like this has happened to me. In another case, too, nothing happened with my police complaint.”
Haroun Shubash, the chairman of the Superbus workers’ committee, recounted how he was attacked while driving a bus in Afula three months ago.
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“A young man sat down, not wearing a mask and eating a falafel. I gave him enough time to eat, and then he started to eat sunflower seeds. I told him to put a mask on, but he refused. I stopped the bus and confronted him. He cursed and assaulted me. This happens to us across the country every day, verbally and physically. We no longer trust the police to take care of it,” he said.
According to labor union sources, in many cases the police close files for lack of evidence or public interest, and drivers, who lose their faith in the system, stop filing complaints. According to drivers, they sometimes see their assailants on the bus the following day, having faced no consequences for their prior behavior.
The police said in response that “violence is an unacceptable social scourge, and the police view every violent incident or act of bullying against any citizen as a grave offense. Every violent incident that is brought to the attention of the police is treated professionally and thoroughly with the aim of seeking the truth and bringing those involved to justice. We will continue to act against the resort to violence wherever it occurs to maintain public safety, particularly when it concerns public servants."
The office of Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, whose ministry oversees the police, told Haaretz that “in every case of the kind described, a complaint must be filed with the police. If there is a complaint that is not addressed, we would like to be informed about it and will look into it.”
Concern over passenger violence is not the only worry that the bus drivers have. Many find themselves dealing with violence from the outside, such as stone throwing, firebombs and at times even gunshots. Buses on some of the routes that routinely experience such incidents are not reinforced or protected.
For example, buses going to the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim outside of Jerusalem have seen an increase in stone throwing since the civil unrest the followed the outbreak of May's war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Police have been instructed by a labor court to hold consultations on the matter with the Transportation Ministry, Egged and labor representatives. They are ongoing, but a solution has not yet been found.
Said Mahmoud, who works for Egged, recently experienced two stone-throwing incidents in one week on the Ma’aleh Adumim route. “The front windshield was cracked,” he said about one incident.
“I feel responsible for my passengers, so I immediately stopped and called the police. I oppose suspending service as a protest but expect residents of Ma’aleh Adumim to express solidarity with bus drivers. If we are hurt, it endangers their lives as well. We’ve asked for police cars to accompany us at night, as well as [armor for our buses]. I have no alternate to my place of work, but I feel responsibility and fear on every shift.”
With regard to the Ma’aleh Adumim route, Egged said the following: “The attacks on bus drivers is a nationwide phenomenon that demands decisive action. We support our drivers and in isolated violent incidents such as these, we work with the police and local authorities. Regrettably, we have recently seen destructive activity directed against buses, which endangers passengers, drivers and anyone using these roads. We support the drivers on this issue and are working closely with the workers’ committee and the labor union to get the relevant authorities to solve this problem.”
Knesset Member Naama Lazimi of the Labor Party has just proposed legislation on the issue. “The attacks on bus drivers and public transportation are a national plague,” she said.
“Unfortunately, this phenomenon has thus far been met with a weak response by the police and the government, partly due to a lack of complementary legislation that would provide the tools necessary for combating it. This is one reason why Israel has a shortage of bus drivers and can’t recruit more people to the field. The bill we presented this week, supported by Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, will increase penalties and prevent violence against drivers,” she said.