TEL AVIV // Israel yesterday introduced separate bus lines for Palestinians and Israelis travelling into Israel's cities from the occupied West Bank.
The measure, spurred by pressure from Jewish settlers in the West Bank, was decried by Palestinian officials and Israeli human rights groups as racist and illegal. It immediately drew comparisons to one of the most hated fixtures of apartheid-era South Africa and segregation in the American South in the 1950s.
It is the first time that Israel has, in effect, introduced Palestinian-only buses in the West Bank since taking over the territory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the rights groups said.
According to the Israeli transportation ministry, two bus lines aimed at serving Palestinians will run from the West Bank's Eyal checkpoint near Qalqilya into central Israeli cities like Tel Aviv. Eyal is a key crossing for thousands of Palestinians who travel to work within Israel's internationally recognised borders.
Until now, many Palestinian workers who cross through Eyal walked or took a taxi or minibus to a bus stop near a Jewish settlement, where they boarded a bus along with Jewish passengers.
The ministry denied that the buses are "separate for Palestinians" but said they will "improve public transport services" offered to Palestinian workers by providing them with cheaper and more reliable transportation to their jobs in Israel, a statement said.
Ministry officials also rejected claims that Palestinians would be prohibited from using the same buses on which settlers travel. However, activists from Yesh Din and other rights groups said the police and army may ignore those rules and ask Palestinians to leave the shared buses and board the Palestinian-only ones.
They cite numerous examples of Palestinians being removed from shared buses in recent months. The police are typically charged with the bus checks once the buses cross into Israel from the West Bank.
Israeli media reported yesterday that settlers have pushed for the segregated buses, claiming they felt unsafe with Palestinians on board.
The introduction of separate bus lines has only been advertised in Arabic-language leaflets distributed in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, Israel media reported yesterday.
Palestinian officials condemned the Israeli move. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee, told The National: "With eyes wide open, we're moving towards apartheid and racism. Everybody is complicit - the legal and political systems and the different Israeli ministries."
Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, said it was weighing a legal challenge to the separate buses in the Israeli High Court of Justice.
Emily Schaeffer, an attorney with the organisation, said the Palestinian-only buses were a "clear" violation of international humanitarian law.
She added that under international law, Israel is permitted to use the West Bank only for the benefit of the so-called "protected persons" - in this case, the Palestinians. The only exception is if Israel claims that "military necessity" was behind a certain move, which in this case has not been cited as a reason for the segregated bus lines, she said.
"We would have a solid argument even in an Israeli court," said Ms Schaeffer. She referred to Israel's view that most of its Jewish settlements in the West Bank are legitimate - in contrast to the international community, which deems all the settlements as illegal.
She added: "This is discrimination. It also violates the basic right to freedom of movement and, by limiting their access to their jobs, to their right to earn a living."
About 30,000 Palestinians from the West Bank have legal permits to work within Israel's recognised borders, typically in construction or agriculture. A further 30,000 Palestinian labourers enter Israel illegally, typically because they do not meet strict Israeli requirements such as granting permits only to married fathers over the age of 35. Israel claims that younger men without a family may pose a greater security threat.
Israeli media yesterday reported that the introduction of the new Palestinian-only buses was driven by settlers' claims that riding along with Palestinians was a security risk and that the latter's presence led to overcrowded buses and spurred tensions between them and Jewish passengers.
While Israel allows Palestinians with work permits to use its public transportation, activists have in recent months reported incidents in which Palestinians were not allowed to board buses or were forced off by police once those buses reached the West Bank from central Israel.
Karin Lindner, an activist with the Israeli rights group Machsom Watch, which tracks violations against Palestinians in West Bank checkpoints, said Palestinian labourers forced off Israeli buses then have to walk some 2.5 kilometres to fetch their documents at a checkpoint near Israel's West Bank separation barrier.
Maath Musleh, a Palestinian freelance journalist and human rights activist living in East Jerusalem, said the new system of Palestinian-only buses would make it easier for Israel to control Palestinians in the West Bank.
He added: "Even if some Palestinian workers now say the new buses make it easier for them to get to work, they'll suffer in the long run. This will make it easier for the Israeli army to stop and harass Palestinian buses because they know that there aren't any settlers on them."