One of the most iconic moments in the American civil rights movement took place in Alabama in 1955, when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat in the "coloured" section of a bus to make way for a white passenger. She was not the first person to resist racial segregation on public transport, but her case became high profile and she was known as the "mother of the freedom movement".
In apartheid South Africa, too, black-only buses, bus stops, and train carriages were a crucial part of enforcing the racist separation of society in the 1950s. The racial segregation of public transport, therefore, has a charged history. Officially enforced segregation tends to be a signifier of racial disharmony and discrimination. That is why the news that Israel has introduced Palestinian-only bus services in the occupied West Bank has caused such controversy
The two new bus lines were launched on Monday, to be used by Palestinian labourers travelling between the West Bank and Israel. They were introduced in response to complaints by Jewish settlers that Palestinians on mixed buses were posing a security risk. The Ministry of Transport has attempted to downplay the move, saying that the new buses will "improve public transport services for Palestinian workers entering Israel" and replace pirate buses charging them "exorbitant prices". It added that it would not be stopping Palestinians from taking the existing bus services: "The Ministry of Transport is not authorised to prevent any passenger from using public transport services." The fact that Palestinians are not explicitly forbidden from riding regular services means that this just about stops short of legal apartheid. However, the official line is not always the same as the reality on the ground, and rights groups have expressed concern that Israeli police at West Bank checkpoints will force Palestinian passengers to use the new buses. Before the Palestinian-only buses were introduced, there were reports of police removing Palestinians from busy buses to make way for settlers, leaving them to walk two miles to a different crossing point. It is worth remembering that in Alabama, when Parks took her stand against segregation, bus drivers weren't legally allowed to order black passengers to stand so that whites could sit down – but they frequently did it anyway.
The Ministry of Transport claims that this is simply a way to improve services – which is supported by settlement spokesmen, who have said that it will relieve overcrowding. Some Palestinian workers have been quoted saying that the new buses will make their daily commute easier, as they will not have to worry about being removed from mixed buses. Yet the move has drawn sharp condemnation, with the left-wing newspaper Ha'aretz publishing the headline: "On the bus to Israeli apartheid". Jessica Montell, director of the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, was unequivocal in her criticism. Speaking on Army Radio, she said: "Creating separate bus lines for Israeli Jews and Palestinians is a revolting plan. This is simply racism. Such a plan cannot be justified with claims of security needs or overcrowding."
Palestinians and Israelis living side by side in the West Bank already operate under seriously unequal conditions. Israelis charged with a crime in the West Bank go through Israeli's criminal justice system, which safeguards human rights and legal protections. Palestinians go through military courts, which draw on Jordanian law, Israeli military decrees, and British-era laws. Many of the protections listed in Israel's legal code do not apply. Israel claims that the two separate legal systems are necessary to deal with Palestinian terror networks. This is just one example of the daily discrimination that is entrenched in the West Bank. A system of segregated roads has also been built up, allowed settlers to travel without the restriction of the many roadblocks in the territory that hinder the movement of Palestinians. Indeed, those West Bank dwelling Palestinians who do have permits to work in Israel – around 50,000 – are in a small minority. The rest are not permitted to cross the border at all, on segregated buses or not.
These daily discriminations rarely make waves in Israel, a country inured to news of conflict and occupation, but the new bus lines appear to have touched a nerve. Any hint of forced segregation, with its connection to the American civil rights movement or apartheid South Africa, is sensitive in a country which prides itself on being the only western-style democracy in the Middle East. Yesh Din, an Israel human rights group, said it was considering mounting a legal challenge to the buses, a "clear" violation of international humanitarian law. Given that settlements themselves are broadly agreed to be in contravention of international law, it is questionable whether that is of concern to the Israeli government.
In 2010, the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak became the first senior political figure to publicly warn that Israel's policies in the West Bank risked making it an "apartheid state". Moves such as these segregated bus lines merely add to this worrying trend.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.