Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu axed a plan that would segregate buses between Palestinian and Israeli riders in the West Bank, however, since 2013 Israel has already had in place a segregated line that transports Palestinian workers into Israel. The reason? Settlers did not want to ride with Palestinians. And canceling that route was not debated as high-ranking Israeli officials showed outrage over the Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s three-month pilot plan to add separated routes.
President Reuven Rivlin said the new program caused “unthinkable separation” and opposition leader Issac Herzog said it was “an unnecessary humiliation, and a stain on the face of the state and its citizens.” Leader of the far-left Meretz party Zahava Gal-On posted an image on Facebook of racially segregated restroom signs where one read “whites” and another, “non-whites.”
Yet two years ago Israel’s ministry of transportation and the Afikim company established buses for Palestinian laborers only, even through at the time the Israeli military stated the Palestinian workers posed no threat to Israeli passengers. Segregation for the purpose of security is legal under Israeli law, but discrimination is not. The army referenced that all Palestinian workers with entry permits to Israel undergo stringent background checks. Moreover Palestinians laborers are allowed to ride any bus once inside of Israel.
The segregated buses depart from the Eyal Crossing, a northern West Bank checkpoint where Israelis are not allowed to pass. Once boarded, Palestinian workers zip to a series of mid-size Israeli cities on route to a turnaround point in Tel Aviv.
When the bus launched critics decried it as segregated, yet the ministry of transportation insisted the line was for general use. Even so the boarding area is closed to Israeli citizens. Only Palestinian workers with permits can reach the bus stop.
Within the first month the “workers only” bus launched, I attempted to board it at the first drop off point inside of Israel. Chasing down the green and white vehicle outside of Kfar Saba’s central bus station, the driver told me I could not ride. He said it was for Palestinian workers only. For everyone else it was “forbidden.” At the time I reached Afikim to confirm if Israelis and non-Palestinians are banned. They did provide a comment.
During those first weeks the workers-only route opened Palestinian passengers told me they preferred the new line. This was not because they were keen to ride without Israelis next to them. In informal conversations workers told me the segregated bus was cheaper and around 45 minutes quicker than other forms of transportation departing from the same area. Haaretz calculated the tickets were a fourth of the cost.
Conversely, the settler group that lobbied for the most recent segregated bus progam did so because they said, they did not want to ride with Palestinians. Haaretz discovered a 2013 transcript of the government meeting where they made their request. Settlers cited minor instances such as when a Palestinian refused to give up a seat for an elderly Israeli passenger. Councilmen from the Karnei Shomron settlement Yigal Lahav claimed for Palestinians, riding with Israelis was a “double victory” because:
“[F]or the Arab, first, in terms of the convenience and the cost of the ticket. And second, I think that it’s a kind of victory over the Jewish occupier – that he can just do as he pleases on the bus. As soon as he gets on, he’s won because he controls the bus of the Jews. And the third, and worst, thing is he gets to ride with Jewish girls. I’m telling you, it’s just a matter of time before it ends with someone getting killed.”
“I read the transcripts of what was said in that Knesset committee. It’s intolerable, the claims that they [the settlers] need their own buses, because one [Palestinian] didn’t get up for a woman or an elderly person, and another wasn’t nice to them. This is apartheid!” Livni said.
“[I]f we’re talking about settler pressure, that it’s not convenient or pleasant for them in the very places they sought to live, where there are Palestinians – that’s something I find unacceptable, and I’ll work against it. This is discrimination that’s forbidden by Israeli law,” she added.
Presently Palestinian workers return to Israel by whatever method they want: riding in private cars, taxis, Palestinian owned bus lines, or Israeli bus companies. Although most do not use Israeli buses. There are a myriad of reasons why they are pushed into separate transit systems. In the occupied Palestinian territories, Israelis and Palestinians live in different communities, administered under separate laws; there are no mixed localities in the West Bank. Often settlers reside in gated towns where a Palestinian would need a special permit in order to enter. Likewise it is illegal under Israeli law for Israelis to enter Area A of the West Bank, an Oslo delineated region that encompasses every major Palestinian city, and is under the security and civilian control of the Palestinian Authority.
As a result, a Palestinian using an Israeli bus in the West Bank is faced with many challenges. If a line runs through multiple settlements, unless he were to have entry permits for each of the cities, he could not board. Similarly an Israeli is not allowed not ride a Palestinian bus that makes any stops inside of Area A of the West Bank.
In response there are two bus lines in place for decades in the areas of the West Bank closest to Jerusalem: one Palestinian operated out of East Jerusalem and one Israeli. The Palestinian buses pick up from Palestinian cities in the West Bank and then head into Israel. The Israeli buses pick up from the settlements and then head into Israel. They do not service Palestinian towns in the West Bank or the East Jerusalem neighborhoods on the West Bank side of the separation barrier. And so, even without a blanket law of segregation, the routes that are in place leave little room for intermixing.