TEL AVIV, Israel — For more than a decade, Khaled Abdi and his uncle, Sami, have navigated the circuitous routes of the West Bank to get to low-paying construction jobs in central Israel. They’d wake at 3 a.m. to leave their homes near Nablus to catch one of Israel’s state-run buses, which also ferried Israeli settlers.
It was a rare point of interaction between the two communities, whose members often live near one another but are on opposite sides of one of the region’s most deeply entrenched conflicts.
But that rare interaction may be about to come to an end. On Monday, Israel’s Transportation Ministry opened up a new bus system in the West Bank that Palestinian officials say is intended to separate Jews and Arabs.
Palestinian officials call it “blatant racism.” Israeli officials call it simply providing better service to the tens of thousands of Palestinians who commute daily to their jobs in Israel.
“It is yet another rung in the ladder that Israel is slowly climbing until all the world will call it an apartheid state,” said one Palestinian official, who asked not to be quoted by name because he was not authorized to speak publicly until Palestinian officials determine whether they will launch a formal complaint.
In a statement, Israel’s Transportation Ministry denied that the new bus line constituted discrimination.
“The Transportation Ministry is forbidden from preventing any passenger from boarding any line of public transportation nor do we know of a directive to that effect,” a ministry statement said. “The new lines are not separate lines for Palestinians but rather two designated lines meant to improve the services offered to Palestinian workers who enter Israel.”
In practice, however, there were signs that at a minimum Palestinians would be actively encouraged to use the new line and discouraged from using the old bus lines, which continue to run.
One Palestinian construction worker who chose to take the old line Monday said that he was forced to get off the bus at checkpoints and was subjected to extra security checks despite having all the paperwork to work legally in Israel. He asked not to be named because of the controversy involved.
Other accounts have cited Israeli bus drivers as saying that Palestinians would be limited to the “Arab-only” bus.
“There will be checks at the checkpoint, and Palestinians will be asked to board their own buses,” the Israeli website Ynet quoted one unidentified bus driver as saying.
The ad campaign for the new bus service was conducted only in Arabic through Palestinian media outlets. A Transportation Ministry spokesman, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the new service, said the new buses still would be categorized as “general bus lines,” but they would be “geared toward” Palestinian riders.
Certainly, there were inconveniences in the new system. For one, Palestinians must reach the Eyal checkpoint, near the settlement of Ariel, the only place the new route stops in the West Bank. That means many Palestinians are on their own to get to Eyal – and home again after work – either by illegal collective vans or expensive taxi rides.
Israel’s Transportation Ministry said that it would look into expanding the new bus lines to Palestinian communities, but that it would depend on demand and budget.
Khaled Abdi was skeptical.
“They say that in the future it will go other places, but we have no guarantee,” he said.
Fuad Maloof, a 32-year-old construction worker from the town of Qalqilya, said that he doesn’t mind the new line, as long as Israel expands the service. He said he was grateful that the new bus line was half the price of the illegal mini-buses he used to ride from his home to central Israel.
“I can save money, as long as this bus comes more regularly and there is room for everyone,” he said.
He acknowledged the service made him feel unwelcomed. “It is not a good feeling that the Jews don’t want us on the same bus,” he said.
The anonymous Transportation Ministry spokesman said that his ministry had been tasked to find a way to move Palestinians from the West Bank to their jobs in Israel after Israeli settlers on the West Bank complained that the Palestinians created overcrowded conditions and tension on the buses.
Last year, Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, wrote on his Facebook page that he was working with the Israeli army to stop Palestinians from boarding buses to his city.
“All of them are working on this problem, and we hope that they will soon find a solution to the reality that is bothering our people,” he said.
But Sari Bashi, the executive director of Gisha, a group that advocates lifting Israel’s restrictions on the Palestinian territories, said the buses were another example of a “dual system of rights for Israelis and Palestinians.”
“These settlers and Israeli citizens apparently feel safe enough to allow Palestinians to build their homes and clear their land, so it’s unclear why they can’t ride the same buses,” she said.
In November, the Haaretz newspaper reported that Israeli police and soldiers were ordering Palestinian laborers with legal work permits off buses from the Tel Aviv area to the West Bank, following complaints from settlers that Palestinians pose a security risk by riding the same buses as them.
Palestinians have often railed against what they called an unfair transportation system in the West Bank. Several highways and arteries that cut through the West Bank are restricted to cars with Israeli license plates only, forcing Palestinians to use circuitous side roads that often can take three times as long.
Only Palestinians who have been approved by the Israeli army and hold the correct identification cards can travel from the West Bank into Israel, including East Jerusalem.
In any case, Sami Abdi said he and his nephew will catch the new bus.
“Really, what choice do we have?” he asked. “Israel creates the system and we live in it. We need these jobs, so we will use whatever bus they tell us to.”
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @sheeraf