Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday morning suspended a Defense Ministry pilot plan that would have disallowed Palestinians with work permits from using Israeli buses to enter the West Bank. The plan, which was reported overnight Tuesday, had garnered fierce criticism from opposition politicians and others, who claimed that it constituted an “apartheid” policy.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had decided to implement the three-month pilot, starting Wednesday, during which Palestinian laborers entering Israel for work through one of five Israeli checkpoints would be obligated to return home through the same checkpoint. The move would effectively ban them boarding Israeli buses traveling from central Israel to the settlements of Samaria, or the northern West Bank, because the buses do not stop at those checkpoints.
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.”
But the move was quickly stopped Wednesday by Netanyahu, an official in his bureau said. “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,” the official said.
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.
Some Israeli politicians on Wednesday blasted the initial decision as 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.”
“Any security excuse used by Ya’alon is utter nonsense. Representatives of the IDF and the security establishment have already admitted explicitly that there is no risk in traveling together,” she wrote.
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.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog also attacked the decision, saying it marked a “stain on the face of the country.”
Deputy Knesset speaker Nahman Shai, also of the Zionist Union, warned of the diplomatic repercussions of the decision ahead of a visit to Israel by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
“Separation between Jews and Arabs on West Bank buses is a clear act of harm to equality and human rights. It will rightfully be perceived in the world as apartheid between Jews and Arabs and will cast a heavy pall on Israel as a democratic state.”
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.”
Saeb Erekat, a chief Palestinian negotiator, told The Times of Israel that the Netanyahu government was creating “an apartheid regime” through the decision.
“Israeli society is denying reality. They don’t hear the Palestinians and don’t want to know about their existence. They hope that the Palestinians will disappear. But I tell them: We’re here and we shall not disappear.”
Before the decision was suspended, some members of Knesset on the right expressed satisfaction with it. Moti Yogev, head of the Subcommittee for Judea and Samaria in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, praised Ya’alon for “improving security and services for all populations in Judea and Samaria.”
“All those arguing against [the decision] are unfamiliar with reality and are hypocritical, deceitful and irresponsible,” Yogev, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said in a statement. “In reality, Arabs in Judea and Samaria live better than in any neighboring Arab state.”
Avi Issacharoff, Mitch Ginsburg, AP and AFP contributed to this report.