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More Segregation: New Israeli policy creates ‘Palestinians Only’ buses

Joel Greenberg
The Washington Post

JERUSALEM — The letters to Israeli government officials began piling up last year.

 Leaders of Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank, citing complaints by residents of harassment by Arabs on their daily commute, lobbied to restrict travel by Palestinian laborers using Israeli bus lines to get to and from their jobs in Israel.

An online petition posted by settlers from the town of Ariel demanded that Palestinians be barred from the buses, alleging that Jewish passengers were experiencing “frightening rides” and feared for their safety. Urging the authorities to act, Ariel’s mayor wrote that his constituents had been subject to abuse and “thuggish acts” by Palestinian passengers.

This week, Israel’s transportation ministry rolled out its solution: special bus lines that pick up Palestinian workers at a crossing point into Israel and return them there at the end of the work day.

The announcement, suggesting separate bus lines for Jews and Arabs, created immediate controversy.

The ministry said the new lines, which began operating at a crossing from the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Monday, are “meant to improve service for Palestinian workers” and replace unregulated vans whose drivers ferry laborers to their workplaces at exorbitant prices.

A police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, indicated that Palestinians would still be permitted to ride Israeli buses, but he said that if the buses are stopped for police inspections, Palestinian passengers would henceforth be “diverted” to the crossing point near the town of Qalqilya, where the new service is provided, “to make things more efficient and effective.”

Some Palestinian laborers welcomed the cheaper alternative, but it drew sharp denunciations from Israeli critics, who accused the authorities of institutionalizing ethnic separation on public transport that by law should be open to everyone.

“This is what apartheid looks like,” Zehava Galon, a lawmaker who heads the leftist Meretz party in parliament, wrote on her Facebook page. “Separate bus lines for Palestinians and Jews prove that democracy and occupation can’t coexist.”

In an editorial Tuesday, the liberal daily Haaretz denounced the new bus arrangement as “racist segregation,” saying it added another layer to a host of restrictions that discriminate between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank.

And Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, which monitors conditions in the Palestinian areas, called the arrangement “an attempt to use security and convenience as a cover for racism.”

“We know from experience that you can’t have separate but equal,” she added. “Separation by definition is discriminatory.”

Responding to the critics, Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said he had given instructions to ensure that “Palestinians entering Israel can travel on all public transport lines in Israel, including all lines in Judea and Samaria,” a reference to the West Bank.

Katz’s spokesman, Avner Ovadia, said that the new bus service was prompted by crowding that has occurred on regular routes as more Palestinians have been permitted into Israel to work and that there were plans to increase the number of buses serving the laborers. More than 30,000 Palestinians from the West Bank have permits to work in Israel, according to the Israeli Defense Ministry. Many work in construction or factory jobs.