(February 9, 2023 / JNS) Many Jews in Samaria are afraid to take the bus. Arab workers, who are not Israeli citizens, have effectively taken them over. Jewish residents find themselves outnumbered 50-to-1.
The situation is especially dire for young women, who are subject to sexual assault. Hundreds of cases have been documented of the harassment of girls as young as 11. Despite a growing clamor from parents for action, little has been done.
Yigal Brand, director general of World Betar, a Zionist youth movement, lives in Havot Yair (aka the Yair Farm) in Samaria. He wrote an open letter on Jan. 18 to Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich, who is responsible for civil administration in Judea and Samaria, and Miri Regev, the minister of transport and road safety.
“Thousands of workers every day use these bus lines (subsidized by the state for its citizens!!!!) that travel from central cities to Samaria,” Brand wrote.
He added that young soldiers find themselves alone on buses surrounded by Arabs and the situation can descend into bullying and harassment and could lead to a loss of life. He called on the ministers “to treat this ticking bomb seriously.”
For some Jewish young women and girls who ride the buses, the ticking time bomb has already exploded. Zivit Nahum’s experiences led her to flee from her home in the city of Ariel to central Israel.
“I was traumatized. I cannot go on those buses again as long as they are on those buses,” she told JNS. “Maybe one time it’ll go well, and the next time, okay. But the third time, I could die. It’s not only the sexual harassment here. It’s terrorizing people. It’s a national thing. The fact that I’m there with them on those buses—it’s just a matter of time.”
Nahum was first harassed on her way to Ariel on Bus No. 586 when a man touched her inappropriately. She shouted at him to stop and he laughed. When he did it again, she gave him a slap. (She said she was a combat soldier with experience in managing difficult situations.) She then shouted at the driver to stop because she was being harassed. Then all the Arab men on the bus started shouting at the driver to keep going as they wanted to get home. Nahum was frightened. She pressed herself close to the back door and got off the bus as soon as it reached the next stop.
The second time, Nahum was returning to Ariel from Petach Tikvah on Bus No. 86. She found herself sitting next to an Arab man who pestered her with questions. She put on her earbuds in the hopes he would stop. When the bus reached the Giti Avishar Junction in Samaria, he signaled he wanted to get off. He then tried to convince Nahum to alight with him.
“You’re very beautiful. I’ll build a house for you. I’ll make you a queen,” he said. Nahum was the only woman on the bus. When he passed her to get to the aisle, he seized her hand and tried to yank her off the bus.
It was a third incident of harassment in June 2021 that really got to Nahum, and it happened to someone else.
“It was a 15-year-old girl, a religious girl. She wore a long skirt. There was something like five or six Palestinians around her touching her. They slowly pushed her to the back seat. I saw her eyes open wide in terror—it was terrifying not just for her, but for me, too, because I didn’t know what to do,” Nahum said.
The bus was packed. Nahum pushed the stop button. “I tried very hard to reach towards her hand. I grabbed her finally and pulled her towards me. When the bus stopped at the station, we got off. She started to cry and I hugged her. She was in shock. She told me that they touched her under her skirt.”
Nahum decided she needed to do something, even though “I’m not an influencer or anything like that. Nobody knew who I was.”
She collected the stories of 120 women and girls who had been harassed by Arabs on buses. For months she tried to reach then-Minister of Transport and Road Safety Merav Michaeli. “I tried everything, every platform that you can think of, from Facebook to Twitter, to emails and WhatsApp. I got her private phone number. But she wouldn’t reply to me.”
Michaeli is known as a women’s rights activist and the head of the Labor Party. The difficulty Nahum encountered underscores an additional hurdle Samaria residents JNS spoke with say they must overcome, the fact that a significant number of politicians and a large swath of Israeli media view them with a jaundiced eye.
Nahum said there’s no question that Michaeli’s political stance against Jews living in the disputed territories explains her lack of action regarding the harassment: “The first thing she did as minister was to freeze all the transportation planning in Judea and Samaria.”
Michaeli did not respond to JNS requests for comment. However, in November 2022, her office, responding to criticism of her handling of Samaria, said she had increased bus service to the region and budgeted for a new bus stop in Peduel, an Israeli community in Samaria.
Nahum said she finally resorted to the media, but only Channel 14, known for its conservative political viewpoint, gave her a platform. It was at that point that Michaeli finally responded through a spokesperson, who told Nahum that it was up to her to collect the hard data. Nahum tried to get information from the police about reports of girls who were harassed but failed due to privacy laws.
“The police wouldn’t give me the stories or any information, so I was stuck,” she said.
The lack of attention is all the more frustrating because there are solutions to the problem. Arab workers from the Palestinian Authority cross from Judea and Samaria into Israel daily. They do so through security checkpoints from where they are shuttled to their places of employment, mainly construction sites throughout the country.
The problem arises at the end of the day. No transport is provided for their return home. So, the Arab workers take to public transportation.
“The official government body that set up the checkpoints for them to enter across the Green Line didn’t stop to consider how they’d get back,” Brand told JNS.
Nahum and Brand agree the answer is to require them to pass through the checkpoints on their return as well.
“When they go back to their homes, they don’t need to go through the checkpoints. They just get on an Israeli bus without any check, without any proof they’ve left the country,” Nahum said. “That’s why there are so many Palestinians who stay in Israel without permission. Once they enter, they can go wherever they want, do whatever they want, whenever they want.”
Not in Gush Etzion
Added Brand, “The second option is to supply the workers with buses for their trip back. The problem is only in Samaria, and not in Gush Etzion [in Judea] where private bus companies shuttle the Arab workers back home. Do the same in Samaria.”
Brand said that Smotrich should be the one to take care of the issue.
Smotrich’s office issued a statement in response to Brand’s letter. “The minister wanted to thank the residents for raising awareness of the importance of the issue. There is not, nor cannot be, any tolerance for sexual assault on buses, whether it is done on a nationalistic basis or not. Residents of Judea and Samaria are not second-class citizens and their blood is no less red. The minister said that he will raise the issue with the minister of transport. He knows that the issue is close to your hearts and it will be addressed.”
Regev’s office, in response to Brand’s letter, said: “The Ministry of Transportation attaches the utmost importance to the sense of security of all public transportation passengers and in particular of female passengers on public transportation. At the same time, the Israel Police is the only entity authorized to maintain public order in Israel and to handle and investigate complaints regarding the commission of criminal offenses such as sexual harassment. The Ministry of Transportation will examine with the Ministry of National Security whether increased enforcement on the problematic routes is necessary.”
“Apart from the letters, nothing has been done. One way or another, I sincerely hope this gets resolved. There has been no movement at all in the last several months,” Brand said.
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