Unknown assailants torched two buses in the Arab city of Kafr Qasim Monday night, in what police believe is an attack linked to the launching by Israel of “Palestinian-only” bus lines in the West Bank.
The buses belonged to Afikim, the company that operates the controversial routes. Fire fighters put out the fires and drivers were instructed to park their vehicles outside the city.
The establishment of the new bus lines was presented by the government as a goodwill gesture meant to ease the comings and goings of Palestinian laborers, but critics said racism was behind it.
Meretz party chairwoman Zahava Gal-on said the decision to establish the separate bus lines was a response to complaints by settlers over the number of Palestinians riding their buses. “This is what Apartheid looks like,” she wrote on her Facebook Page Monday.
Yariv Oppenheimer of the anti-settlement Peace Now organization said the new bus lines sent a bad message.
“Instead of fighting racism, this government is actually collaborating with the racist system and creates different buses for Palestinians and for Israeli settlers,” he said. “In the West Bank, it’s not a democracy. It’s much closer to apartheid than to democracy.”
Transportation Ministry officials, however, insisted that Palestinians could still ride regular buses if they choose. They said Israel decided to launch the new bus lines to help make life easier for Palestinians permitted to work in Israel, where jobs are more abundant and better paying than in the West Bank. After several years of relative quiet, nearly 40,000 Palestinians are allowed to enter Israel to work each day, the highest level since the second intifada a decade ago.
Officials said the buses would ease the burden on Palestinian laborers, who must often take grueling, circuitous routes on Israeli public transportation or rely on pricey taxis to enter Israel.
“This is a goodwill gesture,” Uzi Itzhaki, director of the Transport Ministry, told Israel Radio. “These lines are intended to serve the Palestinian workers.” He said Monday’s launch was a test pilot and that there are plans to expand the service.
The buses depart from the Eyal military checkpoint, near the Palestinian town of Qalqilya, to various destinations inside Israel. Palestinians use private Palestinian minibuses to get to the checkpoint.
Israeli officials acknowledged that the motives were not entirely altruistic. Jewish settlers have raised objections to Palestinians being on board buses that enter their communities, fearing attacks. West Bank settlers last year petitioned the army to sign an order banning Palestinians from riding buses servicing West Bank settlers.
“Passengers on the buses complain about unpleasant experiences, nuisances and fear,” reads one online petition, which collected 1,380 signatories. “We want to continue to use these public transportation lines without fearing for our lives and the lives of our children.”