March 4, 2013

Split Israel Bus Lines Spur Segregation Debate

New Transport for Palestinian Workers From West Bank Brings Touchy Issue of Inequality Between Two Peoples to Forefront


TEL AVIV--New bus lines for Palestinians, created at the urging of Jewish settler leaders in the West Bank, have sparked a debate over segregation in Israel and refocused attention on the inequalities that govern Palestinians and Israelis in the territory.

The two new lines began operating on Monday, ferrying Palestinian day laborers commuting between the West Bank and blue-collar jobs in Tel Aviv. Previously, those Palestinians commuted via a series of private minibuses--whose fares are far higher than on the new public bus lines--or on public bus lines serving primarily Jewish settlers in the northern West Bank.

The new bus lines have created a controversy in Israel, rare in a country whose conflict-hardened citizens appear to have grown weary of headlines dealing with the daily grind of Israel's management of the West Bank amid a low-intensity conflict with the Palestinians.

"Separate but equal?" asked Israel's centrist daily Yediot Ahranot newspaper on Monday. "On the bus to Israeli apartheid," read an editorial headline in the left-of-center Haaretz paper.

Both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians can still ride on both the new and the old lines, said Israel's Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz, a conservative stalwart within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party. That means they are not legally segregated, he says.

"Adding new bus lines servicing Palestinian areas is not segregation," a Katz spokesman said. "Anyone can ride on any bus. There are now just more buses."

Indeed, several Palestinian laborers returning on the new bus line from Tel Aviv to the West Bank on Monday said the new lines appeared to be an improvement that will ease their arduous daily commute, at least a little.

But critics note that the impetus behind the new lines wasn't to ease the burden of Palestinian commuters, but rather a response to appeals by Jewish settler leaders who didn't want to share buses with Palestinians. That point is accepted by the spokeswoman for Eli Shaviro, the mayor of the West Bank settlement of Ariel, who pushed for the lines, Ben Hur, the chairman of the Afakim Bus Co., which runs the lines, and the Transportation Ministry.

Many settler leaders have long pushed for such a move, and the decision comes as their sway within Likud is on the rise.

"The mayor told the government that people are afraid on the buses because of security problems and fights with Palestinians and he needs separate lines," said Shaviro spokeswoman Chen Keddem.

The roughly 50,000 Palestinians who have permits to work in Israel have been carefully screened and vetted by Israeli security services.

Ms. Keddem said that verbal squabbles--but not physical ones--do take place on mixed Palestinian-Israeli buses, but mostly over competition for seats. Ms. Keddem said she wasn't aware of any more serious security incidents.

"If you take a bus at five in the afternoon the bus is full of Arabs and there is no place to sit," she said. "And people are afraid someone will blow it up."

A Palestinian placed a bomb on a Tel Aviv municipal bus last year that wounded 21. Between the late 1990s through the mid 2000s, Palestinian suicide bombers waged scores of attacks against Israeli targets, many of them public buses. Those attacks have since subsided.

Palestinians and Israelis living side-by-side in the West Bank are governed by a dual system riven with inequalities that rarely make headlines in Israel.

Parallel legal systems govern the lives of both peoples. Israelis charged with a crime in the West Bank are channeled into Israel's criminal justice system, where the rights and legal protections are on par with any Western democracy. Palestinians are subjected to military courts, established after Israel won the West Bank from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli war in 1967.

Many of the protections enshrined in Israel's legal code don't exist in the military courts, where military appellate court judges draw on Jordanian law, British-era laws and Israeli military decrees dating back to 1967. Israel says the dual systems are necessary to battle Palestinian terror networks.

"Buses are a symbol of segregation," said Hagit Ofran, of Peace Now, an Israeli pro-peace group. "That may be the reason we get so much interest about it. Segregation is all over the occupation, but when it comes to buses it looks very bad."

Anything that hints at segregation, with its historical connection to South African apartheid and the American civil-rights movement, is a particularly explosive issue in a country that takes pride in being a Western-style democracy.

But the issue has increasingly sneaked into the public debate. The country's Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, was perhaps the first senior Israeli leader to publicly warn that Israel's policies in the West Bank risked leading Israel toward being "an apartheid state."

"If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic...If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don't, it is an apartheid state," Mr. Barak said at a security conference in 2010.

All six living ex-directors of Israel's internal Shin Bet security service, the lead agency in fighting Palestinian terror, recently participated in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, to warn against Israel's continued presence in the West Bank.

Write to Charles Levinson at