Israel denies barring Palestinians from buses

Attorney general calls on defense minister to explain directive sending West Bank laborers home through Eyal crossing

Palestinian laborers ride a bus en route to the West Bank from working in Tel Aviv area, Israel, Monday, March 4, 2013. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Palestinian laborers ride a bus en route to the West Bank from working in Tel Aviv area, Israel, Monday, March 4, 2013. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

An Israeli Defense Ministry official denied accusations Tuesday that the Defense Ministry had ordered a blanket ban on Palestinians sharing buses with Jews in the West Bank, after Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reportedly decided to implement a policy that would, in effect, prevent some Palestinian day laborers from the West Bank from returning home at day’s end on Israeli buses.

“There is no prohibition on traveling on buses with Israelis,” a senior source at the Defense Ministry wrote in response to a query from AFP.

Tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians head to work each day in Israeli towns and cities through multiple crossings throughout the West Bank, where they undergo security checks before being allowed across the Green Line. Those who go to work in Tel Aviv or other central Israeli cities pass through the Eyal crossing near the West Bank city of Qalqiliya. Once through the crossing, the workers are free to move throughout Israel, and return to the West Bank by any avenue they choose, often via Israeli buses that service West Bank Jewish settlements.

The new directive requires Palestinian laborers who enter through the Eyal crossing to return to the West Bank through the same crossing.

The Defense Ministry has said the move is meant to bolster Israeli security measures as tensions and violence increase in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Currently, Israeli authorities cannot track Palestinian laborers inside Israel, and the new policy would enable them to ascertain if some were staying inside the Green Line illegally.

“The workers will have to return through the same crossing from which they left in order to keep tabs on entry and exits as all sovereign countries do, which reduces the chance of [terror] attacks,” the Defense Ministry official said, adding that there was no blanket prohibition on traveling with Israelis.

B’Tselem, a rights group affiliated with the left, accused the defense minister of succumbing to pressure from settler groups, and charged that the order was intended to create segregated Jewish-only bus routes.

Some Jewish settler leaders have lobbied for such a move, claiming that Jewish passengers feel uncomfortable riding alongside the Palestinians as both return to their West Bank homes at day’s end. They have alleged that Palestinian passengers often harass Jewish women on the buses.

Benny Katzover, head of the Samaria Settlers’ Committee, has said the IDF’s policy of allowing Palestinians to ride on buses that service Jewish settlements — the army says the laborers do not constitute a security threat — was a politically motivated move intended to harm the settlers.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has asked Ya’alon to explain the directive by November 9, the Justice Ministry announced Tuesday. The attorney general will examine the order to determine if it violates Israel’s anti-racism laws or constitutes a proportionate security measure.

Ya’alon’s spokesman Ofer Harel insisted in response that the measure was meant to ensure security.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. (Photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. (Photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

According to B’Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli, the Palestinian laborers prefer to take Israeli buses home because they pass more quickly through checkpoints and get the Palestinians closer to their homes with less delay. Under the new plan, that option would disappear.

The new rules would initially apply only to Palestinians coming through Eyal and not to those entering at other crossings throughout the West Bank, Michaeli told AFP, adding that it constituted a “pilot scheme” ahead of a planned expansion of the directive to the tens of thousands of workers who enter through other West Bank crossings each day.

The IDF Central Command, which has overall security responsibility for the West Bank, has maintained in the past that it did not believe the laborers, who undergo regular security checks, constitute a security threat on Israeli buses.

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