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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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”