WASHINGTON - Rights groups are condemning an Israeli proposal that would effectively ban Palestinian workers from traveling on the same buses as Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
The proposal by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon would require Palestinians who work in Israel to return to the West Bank using the same checkpoint where they entered.
In practice, this means the Palestinian workers would no longer be able to use the same buses as Israeli settlers, some of whom view Palestinian passengers as a security risk.
For many, the prospect of dividing people into separate buses based on ethnicity amounts to racial segregation and a worsening of the already wide-ranging Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement.
A senior Israeli defense official denied this, and told VOA the proposed rule is meant to "optimize the monitoring system" of Palestinians and "minimize the risk of attack."
The official also insisted the regulation "does not prevent 'mixed' transportation and does not hold back Palestinians from working."
Currently, Palestinian workers must enter Israel using the Eyal checkpoint, where they undergo strict security screenings. They can then return to the West Bank through any number of crossings using the same buses as Israeli settlers.
Under the new proposal, the laborers instead would be forced to return home through the same crossing at Eyal, where they would presumably be subject to the same security procedures.
Eitan Diamond, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that focuses on Palestinian freedom of movement, disagrees that Palestinian workers represent a security threat.
"There's no foundation for the security rationale that's been given. Israeli military officials in fact said in the debates around this decision that they don't see any security grounds to prevent people from traveling in buses together," said Diamond.
"These are people who are allowed to travel about freely in Israel. They've gone through security screens by the Israeli security establishment and have been given permits to enter and travel about in Israel. They can travel in a bus with me in Tel Aviv, I don't see why if they're not deemed a threat then, that they suddenly become a threat when they're traveling back home to the Palestinian territory," he added.
In Diamond's view, the proposed policy is driven, at least partially, by prejudice.
"It's quite evident, when you see statements by settlers, that what they are concerned about is that they don't have to share a bus with Arabs. It's an ethnic logic, an ugly logic of ethnic division rather than any genuine security concern," he said.
Yonah Jeremy Bob, a legal affairs correspondent at The Jerusalem Post, told VOA it is unclear whether the new directive would comply with Israeli law, and noted that it could be overruled before it is ever implemented.
"I don't think it's going to happen, or at least not the way it's been reported. I think the attorney general is going to oppose it or make it significantly watered down from whatever Defense Minister Ya'alon wanted to do with it," Bob said.
If the regulation were to go through, Bob said, it would be very hard to implement, especially in a public transportation system that has such a diverse array of passengers.
"Aside from legal issues and diplomatic and ethical issues of something that is or looks like apartheid, it's hard to imagine how they could make it work on the ground," said Bob.
"There is so much mixing between Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, Palestinians who have permits and work here and get on the buses and off the buses at different points. It happens so often and there are so many Palestinians working inside Israel, it's very hard to imagine that they'd be able to enforce it," he continued.
Earlier this week, Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein sent a letter demanding Defense Minister Ya'alon explain his rationale for the new regulations by November 9. The law is currently set to go into effect sometime in December.
On Wednesday, Defense Minister Ya'alon defended his directive, telling a group of lawmakers that "when there are 20 Arabs on a bus with a Jewish driver and two or three passengers and an armed soldier, that's a guarantee of a terror attack."