The Afikim Bus No. 210 pulled up to a stop outside the main shopping mall in this Tel Aviv suburb on its maiden run from Israel to the West Bank on Monday, but for unsuspecting Israelis who tried to board the driver had a swift interdict.
"You cannot come on this bus."
That’s because the 210 line is one of two new buses that are effectively Palestinian-only. Israel’s transportation ministry added the buses with an eye to shuttling those with work permits to and from West Bank road blocks and Israeli cities. The government says the new subsidized lines are the first of many meant to ease transportation for tens of thousands of day laborers and make it more affordable.
Palestinians and human rights advocates see it as an attempt to institute a segregated bus system to separate Israeli settlers from Palestinian neighbors who routinely find themselves side by side on commutes at the end of a day of work inside of Israel.
As more Palestinians have been allowed back to jobs inside Israel following the uprising in the first part of the last decade, there has been growing tension on buses. Settlers allege they are getting left behind at bus stops because their seats are taken by Palestinians, while Palestinians complain that Israeli police have removed them from buses at the settlers’ behest and made to return on foot.
"It's true that we can’t ride the 81 bus anymore just because we are Arab," says Mohammed Hassnein, a painter riding the 210 bus back to Nablus, referring to a line that serves the bedroom community settlement of Kedumim. "In my opinion, [the new bus] is racist because it’s not meant to facilitate our lives."
Israeli human rights advocates say the new bus system counts as another element of the Jewish state’s military occupation of the West Bank that evokes elements of the apartheid system that separated races in South Africa or racial segregation in the southern United States during the first half of the last century.
In response to the criticism, the Israeli Transportation Minister Israel Katz issued a statement on Monday saying that he had instructed officials to ensure that Palestinians with permits to enter Israel are allowed access to all public bus lines.
The new bus lines are meant to reduce laborers' dependence on gypsy van operators, and the fare of 5 shekels ($1.34) to Kfar Saba and double to Tel Aviv – is a significant discount, a shift acknowledged by the workers.
The IDF estimated at the end of 2012 that 73,000 Palestinians get their income from inside Israel.
"Now they have a bus for us…. This is excellent because we need to save money," says Faisail Hussein, a tile worker who rode the 210 Monday morning as he waited for a ride home.
While the transportation ministry statement promises the new bus service should be "unrestricted and equal" for all populations, the new bus lines are formatted to serve Palestinians only and effectively bar Israelis.
Catering to the commute for Palestinian laborers, the first 210 bus starts out at 4:30 am from the Eyal Crossing – a crossing point between the West Bank and Israel that serves only Palestinians – and passes about 10 stations in Kfar Saba before terminating in Ra’anana another suburb. But once inside Israel, the buses do not accept new passengers.
Busses in the opposite direction begin at 3:15 in the afternoon and pass through Kfar Saba’s industrial zone, but don’t let passengers off until reaching the crossing points for Palestinians going back to the West Bank – effectively keeping Israelis off.
A second bus, the 211, runs from the Eyal Crossing to central Tel Aviv. More lines are planned, said the bus operator's chief executive Ben Hur.
In the last decade Israel has set up a separate road system in the West Bank for Palestinians and established separate crossing points into Israel. Infrastructure like water is also separated, says Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer.
"The notion that they would be better off with their own buses echoes the idea that was rejected 60 years ago by the American Supreme Court of separate but equal," says Mr. Sfard. "This regime of separation is shaped according to ethnic and national lines, and it is done in the context of the domination of one group over another, and with the intention of maintaining that domination."
Both activists from Machsom Watch, an organization of Israeli women who report on treatment of Palestinians at West Bank checkpoints, and Palestinians complain that Jewish settlers who share the buses with them in the evening have called Israeli security authorities to remove Palestinians on buses crossing through Israeli-only check points, who are then forced to walk two miles to a separate crossing point.
The problem is overcrowded buses, explains one Israeli woman waiting for the bus back to the settlement of Alfei Menashe from Kfar Saba from her clerical job in Kfar Saba. "They are humans too, but we need to get home. Someone needs to make order," says the woman, who declined to give her name.
A spokesman for the settlers council in the northern West Bank said the two populations don’t have need for the same buses and that settlers have been unfairly accused.
"In the past local Arabs who did not have work permits to enter Israel had tried using Israeli public buses to pass through check points and that was discovered," wrote David Ha’ivri, of the Shomron Regional Council’s liaison office in an email. "These issues are not 'settler's' concern per se, they are issues dealt with by the IDF."
Back on the 210 bus to Eyal, Middle Eastern music was playing to a half-full bus of middle aged men who fit a profile that is classified as a low security risk.
"It’s ironic," notes Mussa Mohammed, a tile layer from Nablus. "Inside Israel we are free to ride the buses and train, but on the way back to our homes in the West Bank we are separated out."