A prominent part of Israel’s colonial violence is the deprivation of free movement for Palestinians. Maryam S. Griffin’s book, Vehicles of Decolonisation: Public Transport in the Palestinian West Bank (Temple University Press, 2022), provides details of the ways in which Israel collectively denies mobility for Palestinians and how, as a result, Palestinian public transportation becomes “a site of social struggle.” Griffin’s writing contextualises the ramifications of public transportation for Palestinians from within Israel’s colonial framework, thus setting the scene for readers to engage with a political reality that is either denied or obfuscated.
“Public transport is severely affected by the policies and practices of Israeli settler colonialism,” the author asserts in the introduction. Giving an overview of how Israel’s colonial project affects Palestinian public transportation – the low vehicle ownership in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority’s monopoly over public transportation despite the system being a public-private partnership service, as well as the various means Israel applies to prevent Palestinian mobility – she notes that limiting movement for Palestinians is also tied to their systematic forced displacement by Israel.
Of particular note are Griffin’s meticulous references to Israel’s settler colonialism and subsequent military occupation. The 1967 occupation, she writes, is “an extension of the broader Israeli settler colonial project.” Clarifying this point early on in the book is not only empowering for the Palestinian narrative, given that the occupation has become interchangeable with colonialism and thus adds to Israeli impunity, but it also increases context for the reader when the author discusses how annexation, for example, which is also tied to the colonial expansion project. Israel extends the frontiers of its violence, but the framework remains constant.
The book tackles the subject of Palestinian public transport and its manifestations in terms of colonial oppression and indigenous resistance by linking the historical colonial violence to present methods of violence, surveillance and dispossession. “The settler colonial drive to fabricate settler indigeneity and erase Palestinian indigeneity,” writes Griffin, “has included the creation of a Palestinian subject defined by its lack of access to free movement and the territorial familiarity and national coherence that movement would enable.”
Discussing public transport in the West Bank, she takes a meticulous approach. The territory, always within the colonial context, is prioritised, which facilitates a discussion of Israel’s checkpoints as one means through which mobility for Palestinians is disrupted by apartheid structures and surveillance. Palestinian public transport and its significance is not only tied to mobility or the absence of it, but also as the means through which Palestinians stage protests in their daily lives by various forms of resistance that enable mobility within the confines created by Israel.
Artistic engagement is another concept which Griffin tackles in her book, and which depicts the possibilities and impossibilities of mobility, when one brings the settler-colonial context into the equation. Nevertheless, the author makes the case for Palestinian public transport as a site for social struggle and an integral part of the decolonial process in Palestine.
Griffin offers an insight regarding enclosures which shows how Israel’s restriction of Palestinian movement is part of a bigger political agenda. “Israel has developed the enclosures strategy as a way to avoid deciding between complete annexation of the territory into Israel and full withdrawal from the West Bank while simultaneously preserving its overall settler colonial programme.”
Restricting Palestinian mobility is also linked to the Oslo Accords and the ensuing policies which rendered Palestinians dependent upon Israel economically, thus destroying any possibilities of Palestine’s national independence. The ID card and permit system are other forms of restrictions on Palestinian movement, as well as the Apartheid Wall, which increased territorial separation and additional reliance on Israel for movement access.
In the West Bank, Griffin brings to the helm her observations made during twelve months of research for this book. The labyrinthine checkpoints, borders, random vehicle checks and roadblocks are all punitive measures and sites of violence, some of which have witnessed extrajudicial killings of Palestinian civilians by Israeli police and soldiers.
However, one observation which Griffin makes and which resonates deeply, is the way in which Israel steals time from Palestinians through depriving the people of mobility. Traffic jams, detours and segregated roads, quite apart from the checkpoints and other interruptions, are a daily reminder of how Israel “not only enables the annexation of land via settlements, but also accomplishes the annexation of Palestinian time.”
Despite the restrictions, Palestinians have found means to resist and oppose Israel’s restrictions on movement. The actions require collective effort on behalf of the people of occupied Palestine. Public transport is one such site of anti-colonial struggle. Griffin writes of how bus drivers alert passengers to any possible threat at Israeli checkpoints to prevent those involved in the anticolonial struggle from getting arrested. “By responding to unpredictability and unreliability with resilience, mobile commoning enables Palestinian movement across and familiarity with the land and connection in the face of a fragmented landscape.” Engaging with transit has also enabled Palestinians to attempt to reclaim their political space, something which the Oslo Accords has attempted to obliterate. In this way, Palestinians activism can reach international solidarity through actions that illustrate how Israel hinders their mobility.
Griffin’s book is highly engaging and profound. The continuous references to colonialism are valuable and portray not only the territorial loss and subsequent loss of Palestinian freedom of movement, but also ways in which Palestinian anti colonial struggle manifests itself in transportation within the colonial context. “Mundane forms of mobility such as public transport take on political significance,” Griffin asserts. Proposing public transit as a site for decolonial interventions is an overlooked observation, but one for which the author makes an eloquent case, showing how the Palestinian lived experience needs to be brought to the fore.