The recent announcement that Palestinian communities in Israel will be provided with a bus service for the first time since Israel’s founding – that is, in 62 years – surprised observers who had not realised second-class citizenship also extends to being deprived of a bus line.
People often object to the comparison of Israel within the Green Line to apartheid South Africa. After all, there are no segregated park benches or buses (apart from those kosher lines that the Haredi vigilantes patrol). True enough, but who needs to segregate buses on an ethnic basis if they are simply not provided to Palestinian communities in the first place?
A couple of interesting elements to this story, however, have been missed in the telling.
The first is that – assuming the new bus service actually starts, as promised – it will be restricted to a very small number of Palestinian towns and larger villages. How regular it will be is still far from clear. Compare the minimal service Palestinian citizens can belatedly expect with the service offered to Jews throughout not only Israel but also the occupied territories.
In fact, an Egged bus line is one of the first services provided to small Jewish settlement outposts when they are established in remote West Bank locations. Buses arrive frequently, even though they serve a tiny number of families living there. The outposts, of course, are illegal – not only under international (as are all the settlements) but also in Israeli law. So Egged, the national bus company, and the transport ministry conspire with the settlers in flagrant law-breaking to make the outposts viable places to live.
By contrast, transport officials have grudgingly agreed to provide a very limited service to a few Palestinian communities six decades after Israel’s establishment.
Another point is that the new bus service to Palestinian communities inside Israel will not end Israel’s special type of veiled segregation. The bus lines will effectively serve Palestinians only, running between the main Palestinian towns and villages. From what is known so far, they will not be integrated into the larger “Jewish” bus network. This seriously erodes the significance of the service.
Palestinian communities suffer from very high levels of unemployment, particularly among women, where the rates are among the worst in the world. Israeli Jews tend to take comfort in blaming a “primitive” and chauvinist Arab society for chaining their women to the kitchen sink.
Actually, Palestinian women in Israel generally have a better level of education than the men, and many are keen to work. The chief obstacle is that Palestinian citizens are largely excluded from what is effectively a “Jewish economy”. Men can usually find employment as casual workers on building sites and in agriculture. But most women do now want to engage in hard manual labour, and in any case their communities lack the state-subsidised creche and nursery facilities common in Jewish communities.
The few lucky women who still manage to find an office job, however, need to reach places that provide such employment – which almost always means in a Jewish community. An integrated transport system would make that possible. For the past 62 years it has not existed and the new service looks like it will still do nothing to address this key problem.
A further reason a useful public transport system is so desperately needed in Palestinian communities is that, without it, Palestinians have to own a car to search for and keep their jobs. Why should that matter? Because owning a car automatically disqualifies a worker from receiving unemployment benefit if he or she loses their job or fails to find one. The law applies equally to all citizens but, given the lack of a proper bus service only in Palestinian communities, its effect is chiefly to harm Palestinian citizens.
A related, but little-known catch adds to the precariousness of welfare entitlements for Israel’s Palestinian workforce – and again clearly discriminates against them compared to Israeli Jews.
Unemployment benefit is also not available to those who own their own home. Again, the ruling applies to Jewish and Palestinian citizens alike, so why call it discriminatory? Well, that is the beauty of Israel’s apartheid – it looks so clean to the uninitiated.
In fact, as is well known, 93 per cent of the land in Israel has been nationalised – for the benefit of the Jewish people. Apart from a tiny number of wealthy Jewish private land owners, Israeli Jews hold only long-term leases on their land and homes from the state. They therefore qualify for unemployment benefit.
But Palestinian citziens live on private land – about 2.5 per cent of Israeli territory the state has not yet confiscated. Almost all Palestinian citizens own the land on which they have built their homes, often with their own labour. They are therefore denied unemployment benefit.
The lack of proper bus services is one thread woven into a rich tapestry of discriminatory laws and practices designed to marginalise, weaken and exclude Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens. Unpicking them is a vital task.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His website is www.jkcook.net.