Open Zion

03.04.13

West Bank Buses Only The Latest In Israel's Segregated Public Transport

Today, Israeli bus company Afikim will begin operating a “Palestinian-only” bus service to transport Palestinian workers to central Israel. Previously, Palestinians holding permits to work in Israel would use Israeli buses to travel to work there. Now Palestinians who try to use the Israeli buses will be requested to use the Palestinian bus instead. Although the Israeli Ministry of Transport cites overcrowding as the official reason for instituting segregated buses, a source from inside the ministry told Yedioth Ahronot that the decision was prompted by complaints from Israeli settlers that Palestinian riders could pose a security threat to other passengers.

Though many are outraged over the Jim Crow-like segregation, this is only the tip of an apartheid iceberg in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. To begin with, the Palestinians who are being asked to take the segregated buses are the privileged few with permits to work in the state of Israel. Most Palestinians living in the West Bank are not even able to travel to Israel on a segregated bus; their only options are to find work in the West Bank, which can be very difficult, or to sneak in and illegally work in Israel, which is low-paying and can result in arrest and imprisonment if they are caught. 

In addition, segregation between Israeli and Palestinian passengers on public transportation is hardly new. In Jerusalem, the “Central” bus station operates buses connecting Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Dead Sea and several Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank. These buses do not have to stop at checkpoints—as the passengers are Israeli citizens, soldiers and settlers. Some of these buses—the settler buses—are heavily subsidized by the Israeli government, and thus often travel the city half empty. It's easy for these buses to have a set schedule. The bus station itself is indoors, air-conditioned and even equipped with a Kosher McDonalds.

But to travel from Jerusalem to a Palestinian city in the West Bank, buses leave from the Nablus Road Bus Station, the Palestinian bus station tucked behind the Old City of Jerusalem. These buses connect Jerusalem to Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and several other smaller Palestinian towns and villages. They have to pass through checkpoints, often forcing passengers to disembark completely while Israeli soldiers check their identification to make sure that they are not where they are not supposed to be. None of the buses are subsidized by the Israeli government—and therefore can only leave once they are completely full, often brimming with passengers standing in the aisles. It's next to impossible for the buses to have a set schedule. The Nablus Road station itself is outdoors, unkempt and chaotic.

One of the only mixed modes of transportation in Israel is the Jerusalem Light Rail—which, as it was originally built to connect surrounding Israeli settlements to central Jerusalem, is hardly equally inclusive to Palestinians. Historically, when the light rail system was first constructed, it uprooted several Palestinian neighborhoods, further displacing many Palestinians who once lived in Jerusalem. Now, though the train passes through several traditionally Arab neighborhoods, the stations are named in Hebrew rather than Arabic. Although Palestinian passengers are free to take the light rail as they please, many experience violent verbal or physical harassment from Israeli passengers. Just last Monday a group of Jewish religious students attacked an Arab woman at the Kiryat Moshe station, violently shoving her and forcibly removing her hijab—or traditional headcovering—in public.

For Israelis on the street, the issue of segregation between Israelis and Palestinians on public transportation is an uncomfortable topic of conversation. Though I casually asked several Israelis waiting for the train what they thought of the Jerusalem Light Rail being the only non-segregated mode of transportation in Jerusalem, most responded like a young man who identified himself as Giv, who touched his yarmulke politely and simply said, “I would prefer not to talk about that.”

After all, most of these decisions segregating Israelis from Palestinians are being made behind closed doors, far outside of the control of the average Israeli citizen simply waiting for the light rail.