JERUSALEM -- Israel is under fire from civil rights groups after launching a new West Bank transportation service for Palestinians that is expected to keep them off the buses used by Jewish settlers.
Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups decried the new policy as racist. “Today Israel is officially an apartheid state,” said Palestinian lawmaker and activist Mustafa Bargouti. Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, ran an editorial denouncing the “new routes to racism.”
Israeli lawmaker Zehava Galon demanded that the plan be canceled immediately, saying “ethnic separation on buses was practiced in the past by racist regimes and is unacceptable in a democracy.”
Israel’s Transportation Ministry said the new buses were intended to provide better service to Palestinian laborers by reducing the cost and duration of trips from their West Bank homes to jobs inside Israel.
Previously, Palestinian laborers boarded Israeli buses along with settlers, which sometimes made for a bumpy political ride.
Last fall, settlers complained to the Transportation Ministry that Palestinian passengers posed a security threat, according to Israeli media.
On some occasions, complaints and security concerns resulted in Palestinians being removed from the bus and left to walk.
The new bus service, however, will give Palestinians their own security concerns, says Shaher Saad, head of the General Union of Palestinian Workers. Putting workers on clearly marked buses could “make them susceptible to attacks from settlers and extremists,” he told Palestinian radio. He also said the plan would complicate, not ease, Palestianian workers’ access to their jobs.
Still, some Palestinians seem to welcome the move. Haroun Hamdan, a 44-year-old blacksmith, told Associated Press that riding the bus with settlers had become so unpleasant that Palestinians preferred their own buses.
Currently, two bus lines have been designated to take Palestinians from Qalqilya and Tul Karem across the co-called Green Line into Israel, with a stop at the Eyal crossing for inspecting papers and work permits. Around 40,000 Palestinians have permits to enter Israel daily for work.
Transportation Ministry officials, calling the new service a goodwill gesture, said it was a pilot program that may be expanded.
Following reports that police intended to enforce the arrangement, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said Palestinians were still free to use any Israeli public transportation lines they chose, including those running in the West Bank.
As the service was launched Monday, a ruckus broke out as workers complained that the new arrangement would make their commute longer and that there were not enough buses to meet the demand.
Two buses belonging to the Afikim transport company that runs the service were torched overnight while parked in the Arab town of Kafr Kassem inside Israel. Police believe the act is related to the controversy around the Palestinian-only buses.