Movement, Movements, and Resistance
Assistant Professor Maryam Griffin’s research for her forthcoming book, Vehicles of Decolonization: Public Transit in the Palestinian West Bank, began with a simple first impression. Public transportation in the ‘stateless’ West Bank territory was more organized than that in Lebanon, a sovereign state. This initial puzzle led Griffin to explore the movement of Palestinians in and out of the West Bank, revealing both structures of control and movements of resistance within public transportation.
“I was living in Lebanon at my uncle’s house one summer and I decided to take a trip to the West Bank for the first time. The Palestinian Authority was making another big push for statehood at that moment. Going into the West Bank I was wondering what being ‘stateless’ would look like in this territory. What really struck me was how organized it was. My opinion nuanced over time, but there’s still a kernel of truth in first impressions.”
Griffin soon began to understand the ways in which public transportation operated as a means of controlling movement in the West Bank. One part of this picture was her own ease of movement as the holder of a U.S. passport. Another was the difference between the experience of a tourist travelling to historic sites or within the city center and a resident of the suburbs trying to get to work. As Griffin looked deeper into the dynamics of public transportation in the West Bank, the restrictions of movement within the transportation system clarified.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank break up the territory, creating areas into which Palestinians cannot go. The Oslo Accords also broke the West Bank into three categories in relation to Israeli control. Israel consequently controls Palestinian mobility in the West Bank by issuing travel permits, creating internal checkpoints, requiring ID cards and travel permits, and special vehicle licenses for particular roads.
“There’s a whole system of Israeli settler busses. Technically, these buses are not segregated – Palestinians are supposed to be allowed to ride on them. At one point there was a plan to have Arab-only buses and Jewish-only busses. This received a lot of international attention, as a familiar form of segregation. So that plan got shelved. But the effect of segregation is implemented by segregating checkpoints. So you’re free to ride the bus, but you can’t go to the destination of the bus. This is the sort of thing that escapes scrutiny because it’s presented as security, rather than segregation.
“As a result, the question becomes less about how organized West Bank public transportation is, and more about the political stakes of collective Palestinian movement. Public transportation becomes a site where Palestinians resist Israeli settlement and enact alternative forms of mobility.
“Public transportation in Palestine requires communalism and sociality in order to work. People share information about the routes, timetables, and destinations in real time as those things change as a result of Israeli restrictions that day. In these moments of communalism, we have a vision for how a decolonized future could look.
“These are small-scale everyday expressions of resistance. We’re not talking about revolution in the streets. These are instances of targeted resistance against a really strong, punishing colonial state that requires the restriction of Palestinians’ mobility, and that visits extreme violence on the kinds of open political protest that do occur. That’s why it’s important to also look to these smaller scale expressions where resistance is alive but less detected.”
Grounded in her experience as a traveler, Griffin’s research and teaching seeks to analyze issues of social justice in the world, while incorporating inspiration and insight from the real movements that groups carry out against injustices. “The case of Israeli settler colonialism is just one example. But in any situation of extreme oppression it’s important to recognize alternative possibilities. These alternatives may outlive untenable forms of oppression,” affirms Griffin.
For Griffin, examining seemingly small-scale issues like the ability to freely move about on public transportation can uncover both injustice and potential spaces for a more just future. She points to the history in the United States of escaped slaves creating their own autonomous communities and operating on principles of communalism that countered the violence of the plantation. “If that was possible, then it suggests that in other situations of seemingly totalizing oppression we must look for these spaces of autonomy and alternative futures.”
Palestinian private taxis wait alongside the Israeli Separation Wall at Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem
Palestinian shared taxis line up at the main transit center in Bethlehem