Israeli Police Fine Only Arab Passengers for Not Wearing Seat Belts on Public Bus

Passengers say officer conducting inspection was deliberately discriminating and didn't check Jewish passengers at all, while police deny their claims

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Still from video of policeman fining bus passengers, January 31, 2021.
Still from video of policeman fining bus passengers, January 31, 2021.Credit: Mahmoud Mujahid

A policeman conducting a routine inspection of a public bus in central Israel fined only Arab passengers for not wearing seat belts while not checking Jewish ones, according to several passengers.

Witnesses who were on the bus from Modi'in to Tel Aviv told Haaretz that it was a case of deliberate discrimination, while police denied racial profiling had taken place.

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The bus in question, operated by the Kavim bus company, stopped on Sunday morning at morning near a major interchange on Route 443 for what the police described as “enforcement of traffic laws and coronavirus regulations.” Most of the passengers were Palestinians from the West Bank with permits to work in Israel who had gotten on the bus at the Maccabim border checkpoint. The driver of the bus, Mahmoud Mujahid, said he estimated that six of the 29 passengers on the bus were Jewish.

According to several passengers, the policeman approached the Arab passengers and spent about half an hour checking their documents. After all of them had presented permits showing that they were allowed to enter Israel, almost all received 250 shekel ($76) citations for not wearing seatbelts, a violation of the law that is thought to be enforced very rarely. None of the Jews were reportedly checked or fined. The driver, who is Arab, was also not fined.

Arab passengers expressed outrage at the citations and threw them on the floor of the bus, prompting the policeman to say that they would be receive another fine, for 700 shekels ($213) if they did so. In a video of the incident, the driver can be heard saying, “The Israel Police are abusing laborers. [The policeman] is treating them like animals. These are human beings on their way to make a living.”

Mujahid, the driver, a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Kafr Aqab, said he was initially warned that he too would be fined, but that the policeman later reconsidered. He said that when he objected to the citations given to the passengers, he was told that if he didn’t proceed onward on his route, he would be fined for obstructing traffic.

“I’ve never heard of a seat belt fine on public transportation,” he said. “Even police officers who get on the bus don’t buckle up.”

One of the Jewish passengers claimed that it was clear to her that the policeman was harassing the Arab passengers. “None of the passengers were buckled at all,” she told Haaretz. “We thought it was an inspection for permits,” she said, referring to permits issued to West Bank Palestinians allowing them to enter Israel. “He didn’t even look at us [Jewish passengers]. It wasn’t pleasant. I didn’t dare open my mouth. It was clear that it was deliberate, explicit, disgusting and racist. It was obvious. It’s something that isn’t done. Everyone was in shock. The driver begged, ‘Why are you doing this to them?”

The police said in response: “In an inspection of dozens of vehicles and buses, several of them were found to have passengers who were not buckled as required. Some of the passengers and drivers who were the subject of the enforcement were Jews and some were Arab, and contrary to what was claimed, the citations were issued only for violations that were identified and without any relation to the person’s origin or religion.”

“This is something out of Alabama in the 1960s,” said Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, chairman of the Ta’al party, part of the Joint List electoral alliance of majority Arab aprties. “It’s humiliating, racist conduct and a blatantly discriminatory use of means of enforcement for arbitrary and racist [purposes]. I demand that the police commissioner investigate the incident, cancel the citations and put the police officers on trial.”