UMM Al-FAHM — Late in August, Mervat Igbaria caught a bus from the lower Galilee city of Afula, near her home in the Arab Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm, down to Beersheba, where she studies. Normally an unremarkable several-hour journey, the bus ride turned harrowing when a fellow passenger mistook her cell-phone for a bomb detonator.
This confused passenger called the police, Igbaria recalled, and reported that the fourth-year English linguistics and chemistry student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev might be a terrorist.
The driver soon got a call from the police to pull over.
In Igbaria’s telling, six or seven well-armed policemen boarded, told all the passengers except her to evacuate the vehicle, and began yelling at her.
“Where’s the knife. Where are the explosives,” she said they barked at her. Crying in fear, she explained it was just a phone.
Three weeks later, Igbaria recalled the experience in Hebrew before a crowd of around 50 people gathered in the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery, including Jewish and Muslim community leaders, activists, imams, rabbis and local politicians.
Igbaria told her story as a preamble to the meeting, an informal dialogue about Arab-Jewish relations in Israel convened by anti-racism organization Tag Meir. Igbaria’s experience of being eyed suspiciously was not unique, according to activists who point to mistrust and strained ties between Arabs and Jews in Israel, and those at the meeting saw an opening to try and undo some of the damage caused in at least this one incident.
“I think such racism is happening every day, you just don’t hear about it,” Tag Meir founder Gadi Gvaryahu told The Times of Israel.
Igbaria said this was her first time being caught in this type of situation, but she noted that the bus driver later told her that on this specific line, the 870 operated by Egged from Afula to Beersheba, he had seen numerous Arab women accused of being terrorists and had to wait for the police to come and check them.
Igbaria said she was pulled off the bus after police found nothing on her. They then searched her suitcase in front of her and found nothing suspicious there as well.
“They didn’t find anything except for food and clothing,” she said, tears again rolling down her cheeks as she retold her story to the crowd.
It took a half-hour, she said, before the police allowed her and the others back on the bus, which then continued on its journey to Beersheba.
The police left without any apology or kind words to soothe the young student, she said. But, Igbaria added, what really shook her is that not one passenger on the bus said they were sorry about what happened to her or showed any signs of sympathy.
“I felt like I was an animal. I felt like I wouldn’t get to Beersheba because I was going to die,” she told The Times of Israel later.
When she finally got to her dorm room that night, she said she was surprised that her two Jewish roommates were just as unsympathetic to her story as the passengers on her bus.
“I left the apartment. I took all my stuff and now I live alone. After this incident, I felt like I didn’t want to speak with Jews anymore. I didn’t want to interact with them, or ask them anything,” she said.
But those feelings were changed Tuesday night, said Igbaria, when one after another, Jewish Israelis in the crowd began to apologize to her, filling the gaping hole left by the police and her fellow passengers.
First to apologize was Gvaryahu.
“We are not the Israeli police, but we came to say sorry,” he said. “We are embarrassed.”
He then presented Igbaria with a bouquet of flowers.
Several others who spoke to the group that night also personally apologized to Igbaria. Some explained that fear of the unknown was what motivated the passenger to call the police and that this fear was at the core of friction between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel have remained strained since the country’s founding in 1948. The two societies remain, on the whole, disconnected from each other. Arab Israelis often complain they are treated as second class citizens in a Jewish state. Gvaryahu pointed out that religious Jews are also the target of hate crimes when in Arab majority areas, like in East Jerusalem.
Israel says it extends Arab citizens every right, but that it also has legitimate security concerns after dealing with persistent terror attacks. Since October 2015, hundreds of Palestinians have carried out or tried to carry out attacks against Israelis, killing dozens. But just in two of those cases were the attackers Arab Israelis, while the rest were Palestinians from the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
Despite dying down over the last year, the wave of terror has still put many Israelis on edge, increasing mutual distrust between Jews and Arabs.
Although having done nothing wrong, Igbaria fears the incident and resultant press coverage will still stigmatize her and make it more difficult for her to find work after graduating, which is why she asked The Times of Israel to not display her face.
Still, she said the crowd in Umm al-Fahm “gave me strength.”
The incident scarred not only her, but also her family, who were on hand to see her receive the flowers. Her father Orabe Igbaria told the Times of Israel he got a call from his daughter during the incident, while he was still at his night job on Kibbutz Ein Shemer.
“For a week I didn’t eat or sleep. Not at day or at night. I kept imagining what it would be like if this happened in front of me,” he said.
“After this incident, Mervat called me four times a day so I could calm her down over the phone,” the father said.
Yet on the night of the incident, it was the father who needed calming down over the phone.
“The driver took the phone from my daughter. He calmed me down. He told me, ‘I won’t leave your daughter. I will wait here until they let her go’,” he said.
The bus driver, whose name is unknown, was the single hero of the story that night, according to the Igbarias.
Mervat said he refused to get off the bus and leave her alone when the police told everyone to deboard. She said he urged the police to treat her kindly, and was then forced off the bus by the officers.
And though the police told the driver to take the passengers on their way while they questioned Mervat, he refused to leave her behind.
When asked how he felt about seeing strangers apologize to his daughter, Mervat’s father said, “It’s like they saved me. I felt like we’re one family.”
Asked about the incident, police told the Hebrew daily Haaretz it was a routine call. “Following a report received by an Egged police officer about a suspicious woman on a bus belonging to the company, police officers arrived at the scene to examine the suspect, as is usual. After a brief inspection and questioning of the passenger, the bus was released and continued on its journey.”
“The Israel Police will continue to act in order to ensure the safety of all citizens of the State of Israel everywhere and at all times,” the statement added.
While the police said it had received a call from an Egged security officer, the bus company denied this claim, and told Haaretz, “The case is not known and was not handled by Egged security officers. This incident is not known to the company’s security system.”