Bus drivers in southern Israel 'strike' - because of Ramadan

Four times in one week, 'Metropoline' buses cannceled because Arab drivers refuse to show up.

Chana Roberts ,

Intercity bus
Intercity bus
Flash 90

Not only do bus lines in southern Israel run less frequently than those in the center or Jerusalem areas, bus drivers in southern Israel often fail to show up to work this month because they're celebrating Ramadan.

On Sunday, Dimona residents who work and study in Arad found themselves stranded when their bus failed to show up for 75 minutes. When the would-be passengers called Metropoline's hotline, they were told that the company had no idea there was even an issue, and could not say whether they should continue waiting or go home.

"There may be a bus in another hour, and there may not be a bus," one telephone receptionist said.

"There are no buses," a second said, while the third claimed that "there are no drivers" and a fourth said that there were "traffic jams."

"It's a bus that comes once every two hours," explained Yitzhak. "There were a lot of people waiting - at our stop alone, there were 10-12 people, and there were more, I don't know how many, waiting at the later stops."

"I understood from other passengers that the previous bus, at 7:00a.m., had been late, and so had the Saturday night bus.

"I know someone who works in a supermarket in Arad. We see her a lot. She told me that she was late to work because she was forced to take a roundabout route via Be'er Sheva.

"That same Sunday, when we waited for the bus home, we understood that the craziness was not yet over: There may not be a bus home, at least not for the next two and a half hours (because the bus comes once every two hours). And we weren't the only line affected, either. I told my wife that she may be late for work, and she said she can't afford it, because she needs to give her students an end-of-year test.

"Luckily, the supervisor decided to do me a favor: He called over the driver of a different bus line, and told him to drive to Dimona instead. Then he told me that, 'It's Ramadan - everything is crazy, drivers don't always show up because they're fasting and celebrating.'

"By the way, the lines which serve only Arabs - to Kseifa, Arara, etc. - arrived every twenty minutes or so, punctual as can be. Only bus lines serving Jewish cities are affected."

The madness continues

The madness didn't end on Sunday, either: On Thursday night, the last bus from Arad to Dimona failed to arrive. Passengers decided to travel home via Be'er Sheva - a journey of over two hours -but were told that the Be'er Sheva buses were not running either.

"Can you please explain what's happening here?" one passenger asked a Metropoline representative. "The buses aren't coming. The 7:40p.m. bus didn't come, the 8:10p.m. bus didn't come. This is unheard of."

"I don't know what's happening, it's not connected to me," the representative said. "I'm just a driver, this isn't my business."

That's what another 6 or so bus drivers said, as well, until the passengers finally found one who agreed - after a lot of pressure - to call the supervisor.

"Everything is crazy right now, all the bus drivers are fasting," the driver said as he dialed the supervisor's number. "Don't get angry at me, I'm doing you a big favor."

Nechami was waiting for a bus to Dimona, because she needed to catch a connecting bus to Yeruham.

"This kind of thing only happens in the south," Nechami said. "It's absolutely absurd! And the worst part is, there's no one to talk to, no one is willing to help."

"I can't believe no one is willing to help us. Everyone has the supervisor's number. We're not blaming them, we're just asking them to call the supervisor and find out what's happening over here.

"If I miss my connecting bus, I have to wait an hour for the next one. It's absurd! Metropoline should pay for us to take private taxis if there are no bus drivers. We were eight people, there's no reason they should refuse to help us."

In the end, a driver who drives the Ashdod-Be'er Sheva line but lives in Yeruham was called over to help the Dimona residents get home. But he came too late: A bus to Be'er Sheva finally arrived at 8:40p.m. and 7 of the 8 Dimona passengers got on it.

By "miracle" 4 of the 7 realized there was a Dimona bus just behind them, got off the Be'er Sheva-bound 388, and boarded the bus home.

The other 3 continued the roundabout route to Be'er Sheva, which would take them over two hours.

"When we got off the 388, I got off the bus and my son followed just behind me," Chaya said. "When my son was on the bottom step, the driver nearly closed the door on him. I screamed, and he didn't hear - only when I screamed a second time did the driver open the door. By a miracle of 5 centimeters my son wasn't hurt. This is just absurd."

"After my son got off, another mother and her daughter got off behind us - and the driver almost closed the door on them. This is dangerous, and I want the company to give the driver over the head. He was really out of line."

"I've been working since 5:00a.m. My wife is already mad at me," the driver of the Dimona bus said. "You guys are really lucky, I wasn't supposed to drive this route. I arrived in Be'er Sheva from Ashdod, finally finished with my work, and I was going to go home to Yeruham."

"Then the supervisor said, 'I have a huge mess in Arad, and I have no drivers. Go to Arad.' So I came, and that's why I'm here. This isn't my route, I travel from Be'er Sheva to Ashdod."