Buses in Tel Aviv - Limor Edrei  - 21022012
Buses in Tel Aviv. Photo by Limor Edrei
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City buses should be allowed to operate on Shabbat, the Tel Aviv city council decided on Monday - a move that would make the town Israel's second metropolis after Haifa to offer extensive bus service on Saturdays.

But residents would be wise to hold off on any plans to ride the bus to the beach on Shabbat because the resolution needs the approval of the Transportation Ministry, which city officials consider unlikely to come through.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians are widely expected to object to allowing public transit on the Jewish day of rest, especially since allowing buses in Tel Aviv would set a precedent for other cities with a majority of secular residents.

Tension between Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who wants the buses in his city to run seven days a week, could also prove an obstacle to getting the proposal approved.

Whether or not the plan is authorized by the national government, Monday's decision is still a victory, said Mickey Gitzin of Israel Hofshit, a group that promotes pluralism and freedom of religion in Israel.

"This is undoubtedly a tremendous accomplishment, almost historic, for a campaign that has only just begun," said Gitzin, Israel Hofshit's head. "The politicians must know that we're not going home until there's a bus that will take us there. We won't let anyone bury this struggle."

Israel Hofshit (known in English as Be Free Israel ) began a nationwide campaign last week in which volunteers went to bus stops across the country on Shabbat holding signs saying "Waiting for a bus on Shabbat." On Monday Gitzin invited Huldai and Tel Aviv city council members to join the protesters this weekend.

Tel Aviv has other cards up its sleeve if the Transportation Ministry does not approve the plan, including operating public minibuses through a municipal company and expanding the routes of existing public minibuses on Shabbat.

"The municipality will submit a detailed request to the Transportation Ministry to operate essential [bus] lines on Shabbat," states Monday's resolution, which passed in a 13-7 vote and was sponsored by city council member Tamar Zandberg (Meretz ). "This is out of a desire to allow public transportation from neighborhoods in the north, the south and Jaffa to the center of town, the sea and recreation venues."

Zandberg said maintaining the existing religious balance was not adequate justification for keeping residents from using public transit.

"Leaving the situation as is just because of the status quo isn't a good enough reason," she said. "Most government ministries are controlled by religious institutions, but with political activism, you never give up and just wait until it happens."

Huldai had previously announced on his Facebook page that he wants buses to run on Shabbat, and he reiterated this position on Monday.

"I personally support the proposal," he said. "Anyone who doesn't want to get on the bus shouldn't get on."

The resolution must be adopted by municipal administrators, who are expected to approve it, before it goes to the Transportation Ministry.