Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon insisted Wednesday that a pilot plan he initiated which would have prevented Palestinians from traveling on buses with Israelis into the West Bank does not amount to segregation, holding his ground on an issue that united politicians from across the spectrum in opposition to the project.
Ya’alon, speaking hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nixed the plan amid condemnation from Israeli and Palestinian officials, said the idea was justified on security grounds.
“There is no separation between Arabs and Jews on public transportation in Judea and Samaria,” Ya’alon said, using the biblical term for the West Bank. “There was no discussion about this, there was no decision about this, and there will not be any decision about this.”
While the plan did not explicitly segregate buses, it would have forced Palestinian laborers to enter and leave Israel only through certain checkpoints – a requirement that made it impossible for them to ride Israeli buses.
The defense minister said that the plan would have been implemented purely for security reasons, due to the large influx of Palestinians who enter Israel without documentation.
“We started a pilot plan this week, an experiment, at four crossings in Judea and Samaria to check workers who go to work in Israel, on their way back [to the West Bank]. Every state has the right, and particularly in our delicate security situation, to check those who are coming in and out. This is what is it, and nothing more.”
Under the pilot project, Palestinian laborers entering Israel for work would have had to go through one of four Israeli checkpoints and then return home through the same checkpoint they entered. The move would have effectively barred them from boarding Israeli buses traveling from central Israel, where they work, to the settlements of Samaria, or the northern West Bank, because the buses do not stop at those checkpoints.
According to Haaretz, which first reported on the plan, the restrictions would have added hours onto the laborers’ already long commutes.
At a Knesset hearing on the matter last October, Ya’alon cited a State Comptroller report from 2009 criticizing lack of Israeli oversight on illegal Palestinian day laborers entering the country. He insisted that the pilot project was a security measure, not racial segregation.
“I have not prohibited Arabs in Judea and Samaria from traveling on public transportation and have no intention to do so,” Ya’alon told parliament at the time, but added that “you don’t have to be a security expert to realize that when you have 20 Arabs in a bus driven by a Jew, and maybe two or three other [Jewish] passengers and a soldier carrying a weapon, you are guaranteed a terror attack.”
Ya’alon’s comments signaled that he may still look to push the plan, despite the widespread outcry against it, including from the prime minister.
“The proposal is unacceptable to the prime minister. He spoke with the defense minister this morning and it was decided that the proposal will be frozen,” an official in Netanyahu’s bureau told AFP.
The decision was similarly blasted by other politicians, including several with links to Ya’alon’s Likud party.
“The division between Palestinians and Jews on public transportation is an unnecessary humiliation and a stain on the face of the state and its citizens,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog wrote on his Facebook page. “It would be better to avoid measures that unnecessarily damage the name and image of the State of Israel at such a sensitive time. Israel needs at this time considerate and responsible leadership.”
Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid said the plan had already given Israel a black eye in the international arena.
“It’s good that the prime minister canceled this scandalous decision, but you cannot imagine the damage that’s been done to us abroad. Every network in the world is reporting on Israel as if we are implementing this segregation.”
Notably, among the critics was Gideon Sa’ar, a former senior minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party who retired from politics last year.
Sa’ar said in a tweet that the decision was “wrong, and causes great damage to the settlement [project] in Judea and Samaria and to Israel’s image abroad.”
President Reuven Rivlin came out against the plan as well, saying the idea would be unthinkable. Rivlin said a suspected vehicular terror attack in Jerusalem earlier in the day could not be used as justification to undermine Israeli democracy.
“As we witnessed the terror attack in Jerusalem we received a painful reminder of the complex security situation Israel faces and the price we pay for our basic principles. We must confront terrorism firmly, while defending our democratic values as a country and as a people,” Rivlin said in a statement.
“I spoke this morning with the defense minister, and I welcomed halting the process that could have led to an unthinkable separation between bus lines for Jews and Arabs,” he said.
Other termed the pilot project racist, comparing it to the segregation laws separating whites and blacks in apartheid South Africa.
“The only reason for separating Jewish and Palestinian buses is pure racism, a victory for the violent campaign by the Samaria settlers in recent years not to be ‘contaminated’ through traveling with Arabs,” Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-on wrote on her Facebook page, posting a photograph of a sign in apartheid South Africa indicating, in English and Afrikaans, separate bathrooms for “whites and non-whites.”
MK Zoheir Bahloul, an Arab member of the Zionist Union, said the new rules were humiliating for Palestinians like himself.
“Since this is the continuation of a process of racial separation and segregation, I fear we are not far from the day when it will seep into [Israel]. One of the representatives here in Knesset may separate me and transport me in buses marked ‘Arabs only.’ What would that be if not South Africa during the good old days?” he said in a press statement.
Saeb Erekat, a chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Netanyahu government was creating “an apartheid regime” through the decision.
Separate transportation systems for Israelis and Palestinians existed in the northern West Bank up until four years ago, when Major General Nitzan Alon, then commander of the Judea and Samaria Division and former head of the IDF’s Central Command, deemed it safe for Israelis and Palestinians to travel together. Ever since, settler organizations in Samaria have been fighting the decision through demonstrations and government lobbying.
“Over the past three years they’ve occupied the buses, not out of malice. They’ve scared away the Jews for whom this bus service was created,” Ofer Inbar, a spokesman for the Samaria Settlers’ Committee, told The Times of Israel at a demonstration last September, referring to the Palestinian workers.
Adiv Sterman, Elhanan Miller, and Gedalyah Reback contributed to this report.