Threats at Gunpoint and Stone-hurling: Israeli Arab Bus Drivers in West Bank Suffer Daily Abuse

Jewish drivers may not be immune to violence, says one driver, but it seems that in the fraught meeting point between Jewish passengers and Arab drivers, 'racism quickly erupts'

Mohammed Masalha, who works for Superbus, August 2018
Abdullah Shama

Three weeks ago, at around 9 P.M., Mustafa Samareen was driving the Egged route 44 bus. As he approached his final destination at the settlement of Bat Ayin, a few youths starting throwing stones at the bus. The front windshield was completely shattered and Samareen needed medical assistance.

“I don’t understand what they want, I’m only a driver,” Samareen says. “They don’t want Arab drivers there.” He says soldiers in the area didn’t manage to catch the young men. This wasn’t the first instance: Stone-throwing has become a familiar feature at the settlement, one more example of the violence inflicted on  Arab drivers working in public transportation.

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Last year there were 18 registered cases of assaults on drivers, averaging one or two a month. Monitoring these incidents are two groups, the Racism Crisis Center and Koach LaOvdim, a labor-union group representing drivers at private bus companies. This is but a partial list since drivers often don’t report assaults in cases when the blows were light, when they were merely spat at, or when no delay in service was caused that would require an explanation to a manager.

There is also a lack of trust that complaints will be addressed. “No one looks after us, not the company, not the Transportation Ministry, not the police – we’re on our own,” says a driver who requested anonymity.

In any case, verbal abuse seems to have become the norm. According to private bus companies, every case is reported to the ministry, which declined to give details to Haaretz.

There have been a raft of incidents. At Bat Ayin one driver was threatened with a pistol and another was sprayed with tear gas. In several cases stones were thrown. In Kiryat Arba a driver who asked a passenger to pay was assaulted, which also happened in Ma’aleh Adumim to a driver who told a woman that her car was blocking the lane.

Another case involved youths who refused to part from the bottles of alcohol they were holding. In an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in the settlement of Kochav Yaakov, the police removed three youths who were smoking in a bus. They waited for the driver at another stop, broke a glass bottle over his head and threw stones at him.

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In all the cases, excluding one, the drivers were Arab. Jewish drivers may not be immune to violence, but it seems that in the fraught meeting between Jewish passengers and Arab drivers, “racism quickly erupts,” says one driver.

It’s hard to obtain official statistics regarding the number of Arab bus drivers. In conversations with drivers in several companies that won bids for operating bus lines, it turns out that Arab drivers make up one-third to three-quarters of drivers.

Several drivers note that they take care not to speak Arabic if a confrontation develops. “As soon as the passengers realize that the driver is Arab, reactions become more extreme,” says Mohammed Masalha, who works for Superbus.

In early August, Masalha was driving on Route 2 toward the Afula central bus station. At one of the stops a young woman wanted to enter holding a cup of coffee. When Masalha told her that this was prohibited “she went wild, cursing my father, mother and all Arabs.” When the trip resumed she got out of her seat and approached him in a menacing way. One of the other passengers rushed to get between them.

“I stopped the bus and called the police. The young woman must have called her brother, who came in through the back door. I didn’t see him until he pushed through and sprayed me with pepper spray,” Masalha says, adding: “I was doing my job in the most professional manner, I talked to her respectfully and I tried to make her see that the request wasn’t unreasonable. All I asked was for her to throw the coffee away.”

Masalha filed a complaint with the police. He says that another complaint about racist epithets from another passenger, filed a year ago, has not been addressed yet.

According to the list prepared by the monitoring groups, there has been a rise in the number of incidents over the summer, possibly due to the addition of nighttime lines that collect youths from clubs and similar places. According to Thamer Salaymeh, who works for the Egged bus company, “many youths come aboard, some of them a bit out of control after consuming alcohol.”

A few weeks ago he refused to let three young men holding bottles board a bus at Ma’aleh Adumim. A scuffle broke out, including the well-known curses. One of the men tried to break a bottle over Salaymeh’s head.

“I tried to protect myself and other passengers,” he says. “After they realize a driver is an Arab they let loose all their pent-up tensions. I don’t think Jewish drivers experience the same thing. Many cases don’t even reach the media.”

It seems that Masalha and Salaymeh were assaulted mainly as bus drivers, but the fact that they were Arabs added intensity. In contrast, George Nazy, who works for Kavim Jerusalem, says he was assaulted in March just for being a non-Jew (he is Armenian-Christian).

“Driving down a street I heard a noise and stopped the bus, thinking there had been an accident,” he says. “When I came out I realized it was stones. Three boys, one secular and two religious ones, were yelling ‘Arab, Arab.’ I realized they were looking to attack Arabs. One of them unleashed a pitbull at me. I asked them why they were hitting me but none of them answered.”

This is the only case in which charges were filed, perhaps because a passerby videotaped the incident. It was the second time Nazy had been attacked. Two years ago he commented to a passenger who was smoking in the bus and got assaulted with an iron chain. “We sit in the dining room and drivers relate what they’ve gone through. It leads to despair. Every week there’s a new incident. Who wants to stay in this job after being spat on and called a dirty Arab?” he adds.

The head of the workers’ committee in Egged Jerusalem says Jewish drivers don’t want to work at night, increasing the risks to Arab drivers. He says it’s particularly bad in Bat Ayin and Kiryat Arba. Last year the far-right group Lehava distributed a leaflet  decrying the employment of Arab drivers, suggesting they pose a risk to Jewish women. A complaint he filed with the police has remained unanswered.

Koach LaOvdim declared a work dispute in June because Egged had not addressed these assaults. Egged has promised to add a security guard in the evenings and to install three cameras on every bus. So far one camera has been installed on 10 buses. But one company cannot replace a systemic, government-led response. “They’re doing nothing and these assaults continue,” says attorney Uri Nirov, the legal counsel of the Racism Crisis Center.

Egged says that responsibility for the safety of citizens, including bus drivers, rests with law enforcement agencies. Installing cameras is a temporary solution giving partial but immediate assistance to drivers. We hope a systemic solution is found soon,” said a spokesman for the company.

The Transportation Ministry said that assaults are handled by the police, while the police say they handle cases of violence thoroughly and professionally. “Many suspects were arrested last year and charges were filed. The results of Masalha’s first complaint were reported to the plaintiff.”