The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel’s Palestinian-only buses draw accusations of segregation, apartheid

Palestinian laborers ride a Palestinian-only bus en route to the West Bank after working in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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Starting today, Palestinians traveling from the West Bank into Israel have their own bus lines, separate from Israeli travelers -- a development that's wracking up lots of debate, both in and out of Israel.

According to the Israeli paper Haaretz, the two new, non-mandatory public bus lines will start from checkpoints in the West Bank and run north toward Tel Aviv to help "relieve the distress of the Palestinian workers," in the words of Israel's Transportation Ministry. But concern for the long commutes of blue-collar workers did not inspire the new lines -- they actually come in response to Israeli settlers, who claim Palestinian passengers represent a "security risk."

That distinction has critics up in arms. Israeli editorials decried a descent into what critics called apartheid. The country's left-wing Meretz party condemned "segregated busing" as unacceptable for democracy. On its blog, the quarterly Jacobin simply posted the text of a Haaretz article above the text for Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 court decision that established the "separate but equal" doctrine in the U.S.

"Creating separate bus lines for Israeli Jews and Palestinians is a revolting plan," said Jessica Montell, a human rights activist quoted in Al-Jazeera English. "This is simply racism. Such a plan cannot be justified with claims of security needs or overcrowding."

But the outrage overlooks an unfortunate reality in modern Israel: Israeli Jews and their Arab neighbors already get different treatment. As the Wall Street Journal points out, Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank have long been funneled into different legal systems -- the former to Israel's criminal system, "where the rights and legal protections are on par with any Western democracy," and the latter to military courts dating back to 1967.

Palestinians also face an economic reality very different from their Israeli neighbors. Only "a privileged few" (50,000, according to the Wall Street Journal) are even permitted to work in Israel and ride the buses, writes Anna Lekas Miller over at the Daily Beast. And as she and Haaretz both note, de facto bus segregation exists already -- Palestinians have reportedly been removed at checkpoints before.

A controversial poll released last October found that many Israelis would like the alleged segregation to go even further. Asked what they would think if Israel hypothetically annexed the West Bank, 74 percent of Israelis said they would support separate roads for Jews and Palestinians, and 42 percent said they'd want Arabs to live in separate buildings.