Segregation and echoes of apartheid: Israel launches Palestinian-only buses

Separation and discrimination is a numbing fact of life for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Unfortunately, the shock lies only in the act of making it semi-official. When Israeli media reported that the country is segregating buses in the West Bank, the only shift is that this looks like an approved form of the sort of petty apartheid that Israel has always denied practising. From this week, buses that are meant for Jewish settlers around the Palestinian town of Qalqiliya, in the occupied West Bank, will no longer take Palestinian passengers – the few that are granted work permits to enter Israel on a per-day only basis. This, we are ludicrously informed, is for the Palestinians’ own good – they will be more comfortable on their own buses, as opposed to the crowded Israeli-only vehicles. But setters, when interviewed, present a different story: that the policy is result of their complaints at having to share transport with Palestinians (because they are, by definition, a “security risk”).

Years before I acquired a scruffy-but-sturdy old car for reporting trips to the West Bank, I regularly used public transport – and it is no big secret that the system is already segregated. Large, air-conditioned, subsidised Israeli buses with bullet-proof windows glide Jewish passengers across the green line into the occupied West Bank. Getting from East Jerusalem into Palestinian towns is another story: on crowded transit vans functioning as mini-buses, ten passengers a piece, bumping through pot-holed, non-settler roads interspersed with Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints. The West Bank is already a grid of A-roads and B-roads, with Palestinians and Jewish settlers funnelled into either according to colour-coded ID cards and number plates. This unofficial system just got extra hardware, with the introduction of a new Israeli bus line, for Palestinians with the right permits, who erroneously believed they could use settler transport to get to their wage-slave jobs in Israel. And Israel says they still can do so, of course – except that drivers and border police have already indicated that Palestinians choosing the “wrong” bus will be directed to the right ones. Officially, there is no segregation. In practice, there plainly is.

What can we glean from this development, apart from that segregation is a numbing fact of life for Palestinians in the West Bank? That Jewish settlers rule, of course: they have the power to dictate policy, right down to the details of whom should be permitted to travel on which bus line. Also, that Israel’s pro-right supporters have a tough time saying “racial segregation” – even when it stares them in the face. Witness all the qualifying caveats about free choice and free passage and complicated security concerns that surround media reports of these new bus lines. And, finally: that Palestinian labourers from the West Bank are one more group example of daily subjugation. Only a small percentage of Palestinians are allowed into Israel to work, usually in construction – and these are the Palestinians you see crowded around Israeli checkpoints at the crack of dawn, crawling back with expired permits at night – dusty, defeated, glad for the vital work; another cog in the endless, punishing chain of Israel’s occupation profit machine.

 

Palestinians wait to board a bus in Qalqiliya in the West Bank. Photograph: Getty Images
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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.