As of next month, Israel will operate separate buses for Palestinian residents of the West Bank returning from jobs as day laborers in Israel, thanks to political pressure from West Bank settlers who donʼt want to ride on the same buses as “Arabs.” The question is: Should we care?
Settler leaders claim that the move was due to aggressive and uncouth behavior by Palestinian passengers, coupled with an overall concern for Jewish passengersʼ security. According to a report in Haaretz, one settler told a meeting of a Subcommittee on Judea and Samaria, convened by MK Motti Yogev of the Jewish Home party, about having been sexually assaulted by a Palestinian rider. Another complained that his pregnant wife was not given a seat by Arab passengers. Others were worried that Palestinians on buses could lead to hijackings, or worse. But IDF officials insisted they did not see the Palestinian presence on board these buses as a security threat.
In a democracy, of course, an official report of sexual assault should result in an investigation and possibly individual charges being laid. An informal report — as this one was — might lead a municipality to intensify its safety and surveillance measures. But to collectively deny an entire ethnic group the right to travel on some buses would be collective punishment, rightly considered prejudicial.
Israelʼs rule in the West Bank, however, is far from democratic. Palestinian residents of the West Bank arenʼt Israeli citizens, which means that the normal democratic channels arenʼt open to them from the get-go.
Under the terms of the Oslo agreement, it is true that the Palestinian Authority rules over part of the West Bank (Area A). The rest is controlled either jointly (Area B) or fully (Area C) by Israel. And while most Palestinians reside in Areas A and B, Area C comprises over 60% of the West Bankʼs territory, and includes nearly 300,000 Palestinian residents.
Within the areas controlled by Israel, there is a system of roads dotted with checkpoints. Most roads are accessible to both Israeli citizens (including settlers) and Palestinian residents. But 65 kilometers of West Bank roads are accessible only to Israelis. (Whether this means “Jewish-only” roads is a matter of debate. Technically, Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel have equal access. But in practice, given that some roads are intended for settler access, and settlers are Jews, some roads are de facto Jewish-only.)
As for the checkpoints — 99 fixed checkpoints as of February, plus hundreds of “flying checkpoints” — they control who gets to cross over the Green Line into Israel proper, thus helping keep Israelis secure. But, along with physical obstructions put in place by the military administration, they also restrict travel within the West Bank by subjecting Palestinians to humiliating searches and long lines. Add to this the so-called separation barrier snaking around the settlements, and Palestinian freedom of movement — even within the West Bank — is curtailed by a foreign power.
So about those separate buses: Should we care?
For my part, as someone who is concerned with human rights for both Palestinians and Israelis, I would say this: not really. The buses are simply a function of the overall system of occupation that inherently denies the Palestinians the basic human right of being ruled by the entity that represents them.
Recall that a Palestinian caught throwing stones will be tried in Israeli military court. An Israeli caught throwing stones will be tried in Israeli civil court. Add to this that neither court — military or civil — contains officials representing the regime that Palestinians have elected, and we have an overall situation that is fundamentally unacceptable from a moral, political and ethical standpoint. (Itʼs worth noting that the Palestinian Authority is also to blame for not having held elections since 2006, partly owing to the Fatah-Hamas split.)
Itʼs no wonder that BʼTselem, the Israeli human rights watchdog organization, issued a 2014 report called “47 Years of Temporary Occupation.” Accordingly, the current head of the organization, Hagai El-Ad, told me in an interview last month that he is seeking to challenge the view of the occupation, in the minds of Israelis, as constituting nothing more than “business as usual.”
The usual business of occupation is indeed unequal separation. Itʼs separation between the citizens of the occupying country and the residents of the territory being occupied. Separate buses might be the bitter icing on an even more bitter cake. But thereʼs little new here. The business of occupation rolls along, as usual.