Israel on Tuesday launched a pilot program under directive from Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon to separate Israeli and Palestinian bus travel in the West Bank.
Palestinian workers will now have to return from Israel to the West Bank via the same checkpoint they left and will not be allowed to ride Israeli bus lines.
The new regulations, implemented by the Civil Administration, could lengthen some workers' commutes by as much as two hours, according to the human rights organizations that plan to appeal against the new rules to the High Court of Justice.
According to the plan, Palestinians who entered Israel from to work via the Rayhan, Hala, Eliyahu and Eyal checkpoints may now only return to their homes via the same checkpoints through which they left the West Bank. They will also no longer be allowed to ride common buses with Israelis to the West Bank. The pilot is expected to last three months, after which it will be reviewed.
Until now, Palestinian workers who had entered Israel could have return to the territories any way they chose. In central Israel, many thousands of workers who crossed into Israel through the Eyal checkpoint often returned to their homes on transit company Afik's buses that travel on Israel's Route 5 to the West Bank settlement of Ariel. From now on, the workers will have to return to the Eyal checkpoint and from there travel on Palestinian buses to their residences. This means that even Palestinians who live close to Route 5 and work in Israel will have to travel north to the Eyal checkpoint under the new plan. This commute could take as much as two hours longer than before.
Over the last few years, the Samaria Settlers Committee, along with Ariel resident and newly minted Likud MK Oren Hazan, has conducted a campaign calling for separation on buses.
Previous GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon rejected their claims that traveling on common buses constituted a security risk. Alon's position had been that as these workers were already in Israel, in the event any of them were dangerous and wanted to conduct an attack, they could do so anywhere inside Israel and not necessarily on a bus home in the West Bank.
Last October, Haaretz reported that Ya'alon accepted the settler committee's claims and ordered that all Palestinians who entered Israel at the Eyal checkpoint exit there as well.
"You don't need to be a security expert to realize that 20 Arabs on a bus with a Jewish driver and two or three passengers and one soldier with a gun is a set-up for an attack," Ya'alon said in response to criticism.
Haaretz also revealed the minutes of a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in which Karnei Shomron council head Yigal Lahav said: "Arab travel on buses is a victory over the Jewish occupier" and that it gave them "the experience of traveling with Jewish women." Yoni Dryer, a resident of Ariel, said that his wife had been heavily pregnant while traveling on the bus at one point, and the Arab workers had not gotten up to offer her their seats.
The program had been slated to take effect in late January, but it was delayed due to bureaucratic issues at the Civil Administration. The inclusion of three checkpoints in addition to Eyal was made for legal considerations, in order to protect the plan from possible High Court appeals.
The Defense Ministry was concerned that the state would have difficulty convincing judges that the separation was based on security and not ethnic grounds, due to the army's stance that there is no security risk on the buses in Samaria and in light of the racist remarks that accompanied the idea of separate buses.
The state can now argue that the plan, which includes four checkpoints at various geographical locations, is a security necessity and is slated to ensure that all workers return to their homes.
Human rights organizations plan to appeal to the High Court against the new directive. Attorney Michael Sfard, counsel to the NGO Yesh Din, said: "If the Defense Ministry has in fact begun to implement a separation plan on buses to the West Bank, beyond the fact that the plan was implemented clandestinely out of fears that we might take steps to prevent it, this is a shameful and racist measure that causes Israel to deteriorate to a low moral point. We will fight this step with all legal means available."