The Histadrut’s Transport Workers Union went on strike on Thursday of last week, halting Egged’s line 68 service in Jerusalem for two hours, in protest of a violent attack against a bus driver operating the same line. The line runs between the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus and its campus at Givat Ram. The attack which led to the strike occurred two days prior, on Tuesday of last week. The bus driver, Abu Alhawe Nasser, was violently struck by one of the passengers.

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Indeed, the phenomenon in question has grown alarmingly quickly. The number of recent violent attacks is escalating rapidly, including an especially devastating incident which occurred in January in Rehovot where a bus driver was punched in the face while the bus was moving at speed down a main road in the city center. Miraculously, the driver managed to maintain control over the bus without hitting other vehicles. A member of the transport union commented on the driver’s actions: “He did not retaliate and did not defend himself. He took the punch but saved the lives of everyone on board the bus. He’s a hero, nothing less.”

Drivers of Egged in Rehovot. Center: Tovia Nagusa, the driver who was attacked (Photograph: Nizzan Tzvi Cohen)

All parties involved are quick to express their grief and horror at the growing phenomenon, however, thus far nobody has been willing to take responsibility for ensuring the safety of bus drivers across the country. The majority of these parties, including the bus companies and government authorities, even expect bus drivers to refrain from striking despite the fact that nothing is being done to improve the situation. They are, in the meantime, being asked to indefinitely tolerate an increasingly dangerous status quo.

The role of bus driver, while not obviously so, is something of an anomaly among the Israeli workforce. The job itself, which ostensibly entails picking up passengers at point A and dropping them off at point B, also involves the running of an unplanned and unpredictable sociological experiment. For Israel’s bus drivers are also those members of society who operate at the borderlands between disparate communities, at the fringes of small towns, rural settlements and big cities. Bus drivers bring together groups of people who might otherwise never have encountered one another. On a given day, drivers and passengers of public transport alike form thousands of unique, spontaneous microcosms of Israeli society. When a journey is shared by anonymous passengers and their driver, who know nothing of one another other than the fact that they share a society, the experience of their ride is something of a test of social cohesion.

Bus driver attack suspect, 30-year-old male from Tel Aviv (Photograph: Israeli Police press office, Jan. 2020)

A great many nations across the developed world including the UK have come to terms with the sobering reality that not all public encounters are examples of civility and peace, and have accordingly mandated the installation of protective barriers between drivers and passengers on public buses. Israel, however, was built on different principles: of cohesion and social solidarity. Perhaps the time has come to recognize, nonetheless, that the reality on the ground does not always match the founding doctrine, and to address the implications of the ever-widening gaps between various sectors of Israeli society. For ignorance of such social phenomena only manifest in increased dangers to and risks for the nation’s public servants.

Keeping workers safe

“We will not tolerate this terrible phenomenon, and we will not put up with any form of violence against devoted drivers who are just doing their job,” said Avi Edri, chair of the Histadrut’s Transport Workers Union, on the morning of the strike in Jerusalem. He stressed that he turned to the directors of all major public transport companies as well as to the director of operations at the Ministry of Transport, Keren Turner Eyal, demanding the installation of dividers completely separating passengers from the driver, as is the norm in many countries around the world. His demands also included security cameras set to record the front of the bus around the clock. “We are acting so as to avoid a disaster, and as we have already witnessed, bus drivers are being attacked while driving, which has nearly resulted in catastrophic accidents,” added Edri. “I was told that the issue had been dealt with, while in the meantime bus driver attacks keep on happening. Let it be known plain and simple that every time bus drivers and staff are harmed, we will put the bus line on strike where the attack took place.”

Egged bus company claimed that the responsibility lies with the government regulator and with the Israeli police. “Public transport drivers in Israel serve the entire public every day, and it is high time that the state recognized them as public servants – and punished the criminals who attack bus drivers in the same way that they punish criminals for attacking any other public servant. It’s time that the Israeli police and the enforcement authorities stopped shirking responsibility in such severe circumstances, and started firmly punishing hooligans and lawbreakers who think it’s OK to act with violence and disrespect towards bus drivers no matter which company they’re from.”

Workers of Dan bus company, meeting in Petah Tikva following an attack on one if their drivers, Jun. 3, 2019 (Photograph: Asaf Tzvi)

Egged also announced that “We are shocked by the video [of the attacks last Tuesday], and what is more, concerned by the ever-deteriorating situation with respect to violence against public transport drivers in Israel. Hardly a day goes by without an event of physical or verbal violence against our drivers across the country. This video, like many others recently published in the news and on social media, is a wake-up call for the country – to get up and act before it’s too late. We are convinced that despite the worsening of these acts of violence against Egged drivers, this is not cause to hold strikes on bus lines in our service nor to harm Egged’s customer base. This is not the way to eradicate the problem from its root.”

The national public transport authority, in an official statement, declared that they recognize the severity of these attacks against bus drivers: “We hope that together, in cooperation, we will eliminate the phenomenon of violence against bus drivers, and call upon all drivers to file complaints whenever they encounter instances of violence. As for passengers of public transport, they should not have to pay the price of public transport going on strike.”