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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.

Palestinians wait to board a bus in Qalqiliya in the West Bank. Photograph: Getty Images

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.