Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended plans to force West Bank Palestinians to use separate buses when they travel to and from work in Israel after the proposal provoked an uproar.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon ordered the segregated travel to take effect without an official announcement. Israeli lawmakers, Palestinian officials and rights groups swiftly denounced it, with Israeli parliamentary opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union calling it “an unnecessary humiliation and a stain on the nation” in a Facebook post.
The prime minister found the program unacceptable and after discussion with Ya’alon suspended it, an Israeli government official said on Wednesday, speaking anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to comment on record. A Defense Ministry spokesman had no comment.
The incident reflects both the new government’s more hawkish policies toward the Palestinians and the political tensions that threaten to tear apart Netanyahu’s week-old government. The coalition sworn in last week pieced together five parties yet commands a mere one-seat majority in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
The Defense Ministry program would have made it mandatory for Palestinians authorized to work in Israel to leave and return to the West Bank through authorized checkpoints only accessible via special bus lines. Jewish settlers living in the West Bank would ride different buses.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, a former lawmaker from Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, said in an e-mailed statement that he “welcomed halting the process that could have led to an unthinkable separation between bus lines for Jews and Arabs.”
Ya’alon denied the intention was to segregate Palestinian commuters from Jewish travelers in the West Bank, saying the plan aimed solely to improve security.
“There is no separation between Arabs and Jews traveling on public transport buses” in the West Bank, the defense minister said in an e-mailed statement. “All civilized states, especially one with a sensitive security situation such as ours, monitor those who enter and leave it. This is what we are talking about, nothing else.”
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, a lawmaker from the Jewish Home party that supports settlement building and opposes a Palestinian state, was defending the bus program from the Knesset podium when another legislator informed him it had been suspended. Ben-Dahan said the ministry hadn’t kept him updated on the policy change.
Jewish Home lawmaker Moti Yogev backed the plan as offering “better service and security to both populations.” Allowing Palestinian workers and Jewish settlers to travel together results in “sexual harassment, theft and an insecure atmosphere,” Yogev told Israel Radio.
Lawmaker Zehava Gal-On, whose Meretz party supports a Palestinian state, dismissed the security argument, noting that once in Israel, Palestinian workers are free to take regular buses. “This is what apartheid looks like,” she said in a Facebook post, charging Ya’alon with bowing to pressure from West Bank settlers who don’t want to ride with Arabs.
Senior Palestinian official Wasel Abu Youssef said the bus plan proved the justice of the Palestinian campaign to prosecute Israel for rights abuses at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
“The international community must play a bigger role in confronting Israeli apartheid,” Abu Youssef said by phone.
For more, read this QuickTake: Two-State Solution