JERUSALEM – Israel's decision to launch a pair of "Palestinian-only" bus lines in the West Bank on Monday — presented by the government as a goodwill gesture, assailed by critics as racism and welcomed by Palestinian riders — is shining a light on the messy situation created by 45 years of military occupation and Jewish settlements in the area.
While full and formal peace remains distant, the Jewish and Palestinian populations of the West Bank are so intertwined that daily routines are often shaped in mind-boggling ways. Military checkpoints, special permits and different sets of laws are all part of everyday life, and even steps that are well-intentioned, such as the new bus lines, can backfire and spark controversy.
Israeli peace activists condemned the bus lines as racist, while Palestinian riders seemed to like the arrangement. Israeli officials insisted that Palestinians could still ride regular buses if they choose — despite Palestinian claims they are hardly welcomed there by Jewish settlers.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and has built a network of settlements throughout the territory that are now home to more than 300,000 Israelis. Yet another 200,000 live in adjacent east Jerusalem — occupied, annexed and expanded to include land that was once in the West Bank.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem as part of a future independent state and say the settlements are illegal obstacles to their dreams of statehood — a view that is widely shared by the international community.
Despite chilly relations, Jewish and Palestinian residents of the West Bank come into frequent contact. Israeli roads serving the settlements pass by Palestinian villages, tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers work in Jewish settlements and Israel proper, and the Israeli military finds itself serving as a de facto police force by maintaining checkpoints and other crossings to keep tabs on Palestinians.
Israel said it decided to launch the new bus lines to help make life easier for Palestinians permitted to work in Israel, where jobs are more abundant and better paying than in the West Bank. After several years of relative quiet, nearly 40,000 Palestinians are allowed to enter Israel to work each day, the highest level since the Palestinian uprising a decade ago.
Officials said the buses would ease the burden on Palestinian laborers, who must often take grueling, circuitous routes on Israeli public transportation or rely on pricey taxis to enter Israel. Israeli officials stressed that no one was forced to use the new lines and Palestinians were still permitted to ride on Israeli buses if they desired.
"This is a goodwill gesture," Uzi Itzhaki, director of the Transport Ministry, told Israel Radio. "These lines are intended to serve the Palestinian workers." He said Monday's launch was a test pilot and that there are plans to expand the service.
The buses departed from the Eyal military checkpoint, near the Palestinian town of Qalqiliya, to various destinations inside Israel. Palestinians use private Palestinian minibuses to get to the checkpoint.
Hundreds of laborers gathered at the Eyal checkpoint before dawn to take advantage of the new service. Outside of some overcrowding from heavier than expected demand, few problems were reported, and riders seemed pleased with the new arrangement.
Haroun Hamdan, a 44-year-old blacksmith from the Palestinian village of Salem, said riding buses with Jewish settlers has become so unpleasant that the Palestinians prefer to have their own buses.
He said settlers often complain when Palestinians enter their buses. Palestinians can be blocked from boarding, kicked off or subject to verbal abuse once on board, he said. "Riding with settlers is humiliating, and involves a lot of suffering," Hamdan said.
In one instance, Hamdan said a female Jewish settler tried to order him off a bus that had come from the large Israeli settlement of Ariel but the bus driver refused to stop. He said his friends have had to walk 10 kilometers, or six miles, after being kicked off Israeli buses.
"The new bus line is better, because we won't have to go through all of this," he said, adding that the buses were a cheaper alternative to the private minivans that shuttle Palestinians to work inside Israel. A bus ticket costs anywhere from $1 to $3, compared to $6 demanded by the private drivers.
Hosni Hanash, a 45-year-old construction worker from the village of Zeita, said he generally sets out from his village at 3:45 each morning, arrives in a taxi at the Eyal checkpoint at 4:30, and then spends an hour crossing through Eyal before heading in a private van to a full day of construction work.
He said the separation that began Monday relieved some of the stress of the long morning journey. "We are comfortable being by ourselves," he said.
Israeli officials acknowledged that the motives were not entirely altruistic. Jewish settlers have raised objections to Palestinians being on board buses that enter their communities, fearing attacks. West Bank settlers last year petitioned the army to sign an order banning Palestinians from riding buses servicing West Bank settlers.
"Passengers on the buses complain about unpleasant experiences, nuisances and fear," reads one online petition, which collected 1,380 signatories. "We want to continue to use these public transportation lines without fearing for our lives and the lives of our children."
Yariv Oppenheimer of the anti-settlement Peace Now organization said the new bus lines sent a bad message.
"Instead of fighting racism, this government is actually collaborating with the racist system and creates different buses for Palestinians and for Israeli settlers," he said. "In the West Bank, it's not a democracy. It's much closer to apartheid than to democracy."
Israel has come under growing international criticism for its policies in the West Bank. Although the territory is not part of Israel, Israeli citizens living there have the right to vote in Israel and can move in and out of the country freely on special roads built for them. Palestinians, meanwhile, cannot vote in Israel and are subject to restrictions on their movement. Many settlements are surrounded by gates, security guards and military bases to protect them.
Critics have warned that as the settlements continue to grow, it will become harder and harder to partition the land into separate Israeli and Palestinian states. With Arabs living under Israeli control expected to outnumber Jews in the coming years, that could spell the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country.
"We are heading toward segregation, not a two-state solution," said Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti. "That pushes us to demand one democratic state for two nations and equal rights."
Jewish settlements are at the heart of the current four-year impasse in Mideast peace efforts. The Palestinians have refused to negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while settlement construction continues. Netanyahu says negotiations should resume without any preconditions.
The international community has shown growing impatience with Netanyahu. In November, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a Palestinian state that would include all of the West Bank, a decision seen as a resounding rejection of settlements. When Netanyahu responded by announcing new settlement plans, he came under heavy international criticism, even from his closest allies.
Netanyahu, who is in the process of forming a new government, has vowed to make a new push for peace in his next term.
Ian Deitch and Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem, and Dalia Nammari and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.