Khalil, a resident of Hebron, is a construction worker who is helping to build a new housing project in Petah Tikva. He has to sleep in Qalqilyah during the week to get to work, returning to his family only on the weekends. He gets up at 3 A.M. and heads to the Eyal crossing near Qalqilyah, where he pays the driver of a pirate van NIS 15 for transportation.
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On Sunday, Khalil heard on the news that there would be a new bus transporting Palestinian laborers to and from the crossing point – and he was pleased.
The bus will cost him NIS 8.80. “That’s nothing,” he says. It’s a savings of NIS 12 in each direction, NIS 250 per month. Since he earns NIS 200 per day, that’s a significant amount, he says. At 4:20 Monday morning, he is already waiting for the special bus that will take him to work.
As of Monday, certain buses running from the West Bank into central Israel will have separate lines for Jews and Arabs with buses running from the Eyal crossing taking Palestinians to work in Israel.
Transportation Ministry officials are not officially calling them segregated buses, but rather bus lines intended to relieve the distress of the Palestinian workers.
The Transportation Ministry’s pilot program was conceived in sin: Settlers complained that Palestinians were riding the bus from Tel Aviv back to the West Bank with them. Some used security grounds to justify their complaints; others were simply motivated by racism. The settlers' mayors screamed to high heaven, and the Transportation Ministry responded.
At the same time, the activity on the ground Monday morning highlighted the upside to the reform: Thousands of workers who had been exploited by "pirate" vehicle drivers finally got good-quality, well-organized service from the state.
It took the workers a few minutes to understand where they needed to go and which buses were headed where, but they quickly asked to get on one of the two lines. The first is to Ra’anana and Kfar Sava, and the second is to Petah Tikva, Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv. Thousands pushed onto the Tel Aviv line. There weren’t enough buses to meet the demand. After a few minutes came the complaints and suggestions for improvement.
One man working on the Meier-on-Rothschild luxury tower asked why the Tel Aviv bus stopped at the northern train station and did not continue on to the Central Bus Station. A group of workers looking to get to Herzliya asked why the Ra’anana–Kfar Sava line wasn’t extended to Herzliya. Many wondered about the buses’ return times. Several workers asked for buses to run on Fridays as well, since they pay "pirate" drivers even on Fridays. Representatives of the Afikim bus company and Lt. Col. Adel Masalha, the district coordination liaison, noted all the comments and promised changes in the near future.
A team from the Israel Police’s Special Patrol Unit and several police officers supervised the commotion. Police officials fear reprisals from the "pirate" van drivers. For years, hundreds of small vans waited for the workers at the crossing. On Monday, those drivers looked on as the buses rolled away with their jobs. Perhaps in another week or two the van drivers will lower their prices or maybe they'll just look elsewhere for a livelihood.
At least on its first day, the reform's more problematic side wasn't evident. The point, as has been mentioned, is to prevent Palestinians from returning home through Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Samer, from a small West Bank village, goes to the Eyal crossing point every day, returns on Bus 286 from the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station to Ariel and travels on Route 5, the major highway to the settlements. He gets off the bus at the Gitti Avissar interchange, and walks to his village. From time to time, police officers would take Palestinians off the buses and send them on their way on foot.
Now there is an even greater effort to remove them from the buses – supposedly because they are not allowed to travel on Route 5 without undergoing an inspection. But the real reason is that this way they will return directly to the Eyal crossing point. Samer, for his part, said he would still try to return via Route 5 this evening, since it significantly shortens his travel time.