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
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism