Bus Rides With Jews 'A Victory' for Palestinians, Say Settlers

Records obtained by Haaretz from a 2013 meet on the proposed bus ban show IDF sees no security threat in Palestinians riding West Bank buses and shed light on settlers' objections to riding with Arabs.

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Palestinians waiting near the Eyal checkpoint in 2009. Credit: AP

A prominent West Bank council leader, Yigal Lahav of Karnei Shomron, added his voice to the calls to bar Palestinians from riding buses with residents of the territories.

Palestinian workers on West Bank buses amount to “a victory over the Jewish occupier,” Lahav told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee, echoing the position accepted Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Ya’alon’s decision to bar Palestinians from riding Israel-run transport in the West Bank capped a lengthy campaign by the Samaria Settlers’ Committee and the local council heads in the territories.

In November 2013, MK Motti Yogev (Jewish Home) convened a meeting of the Subcommittee on Judea and Samaria for a hearing concerning issues with bus transportation in the territories. The records of the meeting, disclosed here for the first time, show the arguments behind Ya’alon’s decision, as well as the stance of the IDF, which saw no security risk in the present arrangements.

The meeting began with residents complaining about the behavior of Arabs on the buses.

“A few months ago I was coming back from work at night and the bus was packed with Arabs,” said Ofri Tal-Or, 23, of Ariel. “A young Arab guy sat down next to me and started to touch me. I tried to stop him, to tell him to stop, but it didn’t help, and I was too scared to get up because the bus was filled with Arabs and I didn’t know what to do.”

Another Ariel resident, Yoni Dreier, related: “My wife studies at Bar-Ilan. The trip home has become unbearable. She was riding the bus in her ninth month, the bus was filled with Arabs, and no one would let her sit down. She had to stand the whole trip.”

And Elad Rahamim added: “Old people also have to stand. The Arabs won’t give them a seat.”

Svetlana Batu, an electrical engineer from Ariel, told the meeting that “because of the high concentration of Palestinians on the bus, Jewish drivers are leaving their jobs, and Arab drivers are taking their place. They give preference to other Arabs. They’ll stop for a group of Palestinians but not for a group of Jewish women.”

Ben-Hur Akhvat, chief executive of the Afikim bus company, responded that a majority of the company’s drivers are Jews and “most are residents of Ariel and nearby communities.”

Yehiel Tohami, deputy mayor of Ariel, spoke of the potential security risks.

“The army is always talking about the danger of soldiers being abducted,” he said. “But that same [kidnapper] could get on the bus with the backup of a very large number of Palestinians, get almost to the Ariel junction, take over the bus and kidnap five Jewish civilians to Jama’in, and from there to Nablus, and then who knows where.”

Lahav, the Karnei Shomron council head, noted, “Our public transportation on the route is in bulletproofed vehicles. We’ve suggested other solutions [for the Palestinians] countless times. But the main message has to be that a Palestinian does not board a bulletproofed bus.

“These buses are supposed to exclusively serve the local population, from the checkpoint to their communities. They’ve obviously identified our weak point. The left makes this `humane’ travel possible, and the Arab driver — here, I agree with what was said before, [that] 99 percent of the drivers are Arabs – is not going to object to whoever is standing at the stop. I’m certain it would be different if it were a Jewish driver.

“It’s a double victory for the Arab, first, in terms of the convenience and the cost of the ticket. And second, I think that it’s a kind of victory over the Jewish occupier – that he can just do as he pleases on the bus. As soon as he gets on, he’s won because he controls the bus of the Jews. And the third, and worst, thing is he gets to ride with Jewish girls. I’m telling you, it’s just a matter of time before it ends with someone getting killed.”

But Lt. Col. Tzahi Lugassi of the IDF Central Command insisted that all these stories were unfounded.

“We’ve been dealing with this issue for at least two years, during which we have conducted inspections,” Lugassi said. “We’ve been monitoring these bus lines. We’ve seen how many people ride them. The vast majority are not illegals but people who have legitimate work permits. In a survey we conducted together with the Israel Police, very few complaints, if any were filed.

“It’s important to put this on the table. When we looked into this just six months ago, we found that only three complaints related to this issue had ever been filed with the police.”

Haaretz also checked into this and found that in 2014 only one complaint had been filed concerning sexual harassment on the buses, and it was filed by an Israeli Arab woman.

“If a Palestinian who wants to get back from Tel Aviv to Haras or the Ariel area has a better transportation option, he’ll take another bus,” Lugassi said. “He just wants to get home. It’s easy to paint everything as a security matter, but I don’t believe that’s the case here. We in the Central Command think the solution is really just about improving transportation, and that’s where the answer needs to be found.”

Maj. Amos Zuaretz, representing the Civil Administration, said: “We don’t have a rule that they return via the same checkpoints. The time isn’t ripe for that. When we do have to weigh a potential threat, we think about what’s entering Israel, not what’s coming out of Israel. Clearly not from a security standpoint, since he’s already in Israel.”

As the hearing concluded, subcommittee chair Yogev said, “I would like to refer this to the GOC. We should aim to close the circle -- if it’s the Eyal checkpoint, with sufficient and appropriate public transportation, which would free up the bus lines for the Jewish population by running bus lines that serve the needs of the various populations, without defining it as a separation of the populations.”

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