A Jew, an Arab and a smartphone meet on a train in Jerusalem

A disturbing story of violence and racism on the light rail in Jerusalem, and how the cellphone in your pocket can deliver justice. 

Jewish passengers on the light rail in Jerusalem. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Jewish passengers on the light rail in Jerusalem. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

On the surface of things you could write it off as just another case of anti-Arab racism, wrapped neatly in Jewish Israelis’ all-too-common racist fears of Palestinians. Just another incident among many on public transportation in Israel, just one of many that have taken place on the light rail in Jerusalem. But this was something else.

I’ve heard no small number of stories of Palestinians being harassed and attacked in public in recent weeks. There was the young Jewish woman who documented the security check Arabs are forced to undergo in Be’er Sheva. There was the photo of Jews looking entertained as they watched security forces humiliate a Palestinian construction worker.

Then there was the case of Hanan Zaid Kilany, an art student at Bezalel Academy on her way from Mount Scopus to the city’s Central Bus Station, where she planned on catching a bus to visit her sister in Lydd. In a conversation we had last week, Hanan told me how she was in a light rail car, speaking with a friend on the phone in Arabic, when a woman with an overdeveloped sense of security decided there was a terrorist on the train. The woman got the attention of a border policewoman who happened to be among the passengers, and the two decided to save everyone from Hanan, who had the gall to continue speaking in Arabic.

The policewoman asked Hanan to step off the train and to get off the phone. “I didn’t do anything,” Hanan told her in Hebrew, “there is nothing on me.” She continued to chat with her friend on the phone. At that point the border policewoman became angry, and tried to save whatever was left of her dignity. “Get off now and don’t make a fool of yourself,” she ordered Hanan, who says she was unfazed and refused. “I will get off at the stop where I need to get off. If you insist, you can inspect my bag at the next stop. I’m rushing to catch a bus,” she said, and returned to her phone call.

At this point a crowd began to gather. A Jewish woman began filming, while a few others tried to defend the young Arab woman who was refusing to follow the script. “Bleeding hearts! What if she had a bomb? What would you do if she was a terrorist?” someone yelled. “If she’s a terrorist we’ll have everything recorded, don’t worry,” the woman responded. Others began yelling at Hanan, calling her a terrorist and telling her to “go to Gaza.”

When the train finally made it to Safra Square, the border policewoman summoned two security guards, who physically dragged Hanan off the train as passengers shouted: “We told you to get off, you Arab. You deserve it, you brought it upon yourself. You only understand force.”

Hanan again yelled that she didn’t do a thing, and that she had nothing in her bag. At this point it was clear to all that she was not a “terrorist” and that she was not carrying a bomb. If she was, all of those concerned passengers surely would have run for their lives the moment the train car’s doors opened. Instead, they gathered around to watch the ceremony of humiliation — the type of performance that stimulates a sense of domination in a people with a long history of being persecuted themselves.

Hanan’s crime was that she didn’t follow the all-too-familiar script in which Palestinians are humiliated by “concerned” Jews, who summon security forces, who are even more concerned. She talked back. She stood up for her right to finish her ride on the train, all while speaking in Arabic with a friend who heard the entire nightmare unfold. For that, for going off script, she was roughed up and threatened with a gun.

The border policewoman jabbed her with her rifle and yelled, “Now are you afraid? Let’s see you cursing [me] now,” Hanan recalls. “Speak Arabic, I’m Arab,” yelled one of the security guards who dragged her off the train. “Shame on you,” she responded, a moment before an unnecessarily rough body search by the border policewoman.

Eventually Hanan was left standing at the station with a pile of scattered clothes, bruises on her body, and a deep emotional scar.

As horrifying and difficult as it is, the story so far is nothing out of the ordinary. Another humiliated and bruised Arab woman. It’s become something of a routine in the lives of Arab citizens of Israel who are forced to — or insist on — entering mixed public spaces in this country.

The light rail in West Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The light rail in West Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But the interesting part of this story is what happened afterward. It’s what happened next that we need to draw lessons, and perhaps update “The Guide to Palestinian Survival in Israel,” which I published here late last year.

  1. Sigalit and Amit are two Jewish women who found themselves in the middle of a racist mob and took a stand, started documenting, and went against the mainstream. That’s beautiful.
  2. Hanan did not simply submit to the racism; she assertively and stubbornly refused to accept the injustice.
  3. After the incident, Hanan published a Facebook post that told the whole story. As a result, lots of people came out to support her, both online and in phone calls, something she says helped her emotionally.
  4. Yet despite all of the support, Hanan had an emotional breakdown and went into shock when she truly understood what happened to her. Her family took her to the emergency room that evening. Yes folks, Arabs have a nervous system and feelings, too, and our mental state can be damaged by incidents of racism, violence and aggression. There are those who start hating Jews and despising Israel, some feeling the need for revenge. Others suffer alone in resultant emotional and mental crises — “trauma victims,” in professional terms. But most of us just want justice.
  5. Racism in the age of Facebook can be astounding, and the aggressors often times find themselves paying a heavy price, inshallah. In Hanan’s case, which was documented by Sigalit and Amit, that technological element was very important. After others made the connection between Hanan’s post in Arabic and Sigalit’s and Amit’s video posts in Hebrew, the two sent their footage to Hanan. Senior administrators at Bezalel contacted the company that operates the Jerusalem light rail, Hanan got calls from lawyers and political activists, even from the dean of students, and they made her an appointment with a school psychologist.
  6. On a practical level, two Jewish women videotaped the security guards of their own volition, and the actions of those amazing young women allowed Hanan to identify the people who attacked her, enabling her to file a complaint. I’m particularly impressed by the effectiveness of that solidarity among women seeking justice, and its amazing translation into action. Here are women helping each other, human beings standing up to injustice and taking up the fight against racism. The era in which it was possible to be a bigot and a coward in public and not pay any price for that behavior is coming to an end.


Although just a few months ago I suggested that Palestinians in Israel should lower their profile in the name of survival, it’s time to update those instructions for the good of Arabs and Jews alike. Brothers and sisters, look around for a nice Jewish Israeli with a camera and ask them to film. If it turns out you’re a terrorist, then they’ll make a lot of money with their exclusive footage. If you’re an innocent victim of racism and humiliation, their humanity will be rewarded and you will have decisive evidence of what you underwent.

Of course, none of that works when faced with an armed police officer trembling with fear. In that case, drop the whole Palestinian national hero standing up for her homeland story.

The past few weeks teach us that there will always be at least one human being with a conscience around. As Palestinian citizens in this country, they are our rescuers and they are the saviors of their own people from the fascism, cruelty and hatred that is consuming us all.

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