A decision by the Israeli government to bus Palestinians from the West Bank to jobs in Israel has sparked controversy. The Israeli government said it launched the bus program for Palestinian workers Monday to relieve overcrowding and as a gesture of goodwill.
Nearly 40,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank have permission to travel to Israel to work, and thousands of Israelis living in West Bank settlements also travel by bus to jobs in Israel.
But the move has already drawn harsh criticism from Israeli rights activists such as Jessica Montel, director of B'Tselem, who told Israeli radio the bus program segregates people by race and nationality.
“The idea that you would have separate bus lines for Palestinians as opposed to Israelis is appalling," she said. "It's hard to see it as anything other than racist.”
Uzi Itzhaki, director of Israel's Transportation Ministry, denies the new service harbors any racial motives.
"Public transportation is open for everybody," he said. "The Palestinian workers who enter Israel tomorrow or today can use any public transportation including the settlers' buses in the West Bank."
According to news reports by Reuters
and The New York Times
, however, some Palestinians have been forcibly removed from established bus routes at highway security checkpoints and told to board different buses specifically designated for Palestinian commuters.
More than 300,000 Israelis reside in West Bank settlements, often close to Palestinian neighborhoods; many Palestinians consider them occupiers and there are frequent clashes between members of the two communities.
News reports say the Israeli government began studying additional buses for Palestinians after complaints from Jewish settlers that they feared for their safety on the bus routes.
Palestinian workers who travelled on the first new bus lines seemed to approve of them, saying that on the old bus lines they were often abused by settlers and some had been kicked off and forced to walk.
B'Tselem's Montell noted that separation according to nationality, race or gender is against the law in Israel and said her group would be monitoring.
“Anyone who tries to get on a bus and is prevented because of their nationality, we would document that case, we would file a complaint," she said. "That clearly is a violation of the law, telling a person that they can't ride a bus because of their ethnicity or nationality.”
Most Western governments consider the settlements illegal under international law, which the Israeli government disputes.