North Africa, West Asia

Buses take the front in struggle against apartheid in Israel

Israeli policy makers make sure to stay on the safe side of a de-jure separation, but often their daily actions speak louder than laws.

Naama Nagar
31 May 2015

Emilie Baujard/Demotix. All rights reserved.

This past week, under heavy national and international pressure, the Israeli government suspended a program for segregation between Palestinians and Israelis on public buses.

The proposed separation would have harmed Palestinian workers employed either in Israel or in Jewish-owned factories in the Occupied West Bank, who have so far been taking the same buses as Jewish settlers living in colonies, in order to commute to work daily. It is mostly only workers who have permits to leave the walled-off areas of the West Bank. 

It should come as little surprise that of the many discriminatory policies Israel engages with regularly in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, separation on buses caught the world’s attention.

As Palestinian intellectual and writer Sayed Kashua cynically commented:

“You can’t utter the “A” word… So, I’m not saying it, and I don’t think it’s necessary make such a comparison, not even when it comes to the episode of the Palestinians and the buses. In general, Arabs and buses is a big problem. In contrast, say, to Arabs and checkpoints, Arabs and fences, Arabs and closures, Arabs and bypass roads, or the destruction of Arab villages inside Israel so as to build new ones on the same site for Jews only: Those cases weren’t branded as symbols of earlier struggles against racism, so they’re alright. But separation on buses? After Rosa Parks? What will the world say about us – that we’re an “A” state?” 

This is only part of the story, however. The negative reaction to the proposed program, across the board (for example, prominent critiques included Israeli President Rivlin and former MP Sa’ar, both of whom belonged to Netanyahu’s Likkud party), was immediate. In part because of Netanyahu’s recent infamous video message to his supporters on election day (17 March), in which he warned that "The right-wing government is in danger. The Arabs are going to the polls in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses”. It cannot be overstated, that such speech is racist (anti-Arab), undemocratic (anti-franchise and anti-minority) and hypocritical (because Jewish parties and civil society associations organise buses to their constituencies).

That incitement granted Netanyahu with ample global scrutiny (hence his caution now) chiefly for its blatant hate mongering, which betrayed Netanyahu’s duty as everyone’s PM, and jeopardized Israel’s image as a democracy. However, little is known about a struggle which took place around the same time, and which puts Netanyahu’s racist comments in an even direr context. 

A few days prior to elections, the state rejected an appeal to provide Arab voters with transportation to the polling stations. Civil society organization Adalah, which promotes the legal rights of Arab citizens in Israel, appealed to the elections committee in Be’er-Sheva—the metropolitan center of the southern desert area—on behalf of the indigenous Bedouin minority, which populates the region.

The Bedouins are traditionally a widespread shepherds community, who for decades have been facing violent state attempts to uproot them from most of the Negev desert area, concentrate them and forcefully settle them in towns. Their dwellings are unrecognized by the state, and the 10,000 voters among them have not a single polling station in any of their villages (in Israel, there is a ratio of only 32,550 votes per parliament seat).

By comparison, any Jewish residential settlement form (such as Kibbutzim) with even as few as 50 registered voters, has its own polling station. Adalah’s appeal represented inhabitants in thirteen unrecognized communities, whose allotted polling stations were within a range of 10-40 kilometers (6-25 miles) away from their residence.

The state did provide them with vouchers for free rides via public transport. It is important to note, however, that state’s refusal to recognize Bedouin villages means a lack of public infrastructure and services such as water, electricity, and public transportation, so that the nearest bus stop is always on the highway, outside of one’s village. 

In other words, the state failed to ensure that Arab minority voters have access to the polling stations, thereby leaving them to rely on third sector groups to provide such access. It follows, that Netanyahu’s dangerous statement on election day was more than a lapse of foul sentiment. It was a symbolic expression of an ongoing attempt to constrain Arab citizens’ franchise by various creative means, short of de-jure disenfranchisement. From planning and provision to court rulings, the state puts hurdles on citizens’ ability to fulfill their democratic right. 

Sadly, this is not where the story ends, as far as segregation in transport. In fact there are always new issues, each one adding to the other. For example, there are numerous stories of passengers intimidated by both drivers and fellow passengers if they are heard speaking Arabic on public buses—not merely buses going to the Occupied Territories, but inside Tel-Aviv as well.

Most recently, the Israeli-based startup Get-Taxi/Gett (a taxi-on-demand ordering application, available in Israel as well as the UK, the US and Russia) launched a Kosher (‘Mehadrin’) line of cabs among its services, supposedly marketed to a religious target population.

The Mehadrin service guarantees that the driver observes Sabbath (does not drive on Saturday), however leaked reports by sources inside the company indicate that the service actually intends to ensure a Jewish driver, to those customers who wish not to take a ride with an Arab one. It is important to note that there is no religious imperative for ruling out Arab drivers, quite the contrary: Halacha rules do not apply for ‘gentiles’ and therefore one can take a ride with them regardless of whether they drive on Sabbath or not. 

At stake, then, is a matter of racist preference, and a masqueraded way to oblige it: since many Jewish drivers refrain from working on Sabbath shifts, those are staffed mostly by Arab drivers, hence ruling out drivers who work on Sabbath is almost a fail-safe way of sorting out the Arab drivers from the pool. 

It seems that the company found a convenient way to avoid cases in which clients cancelled an order upon finding out the identity of their driver (the application allows you to do so while the cab is on its way to pick you up). That the convenient way feeds racist assumptions, and denies Arab drivers of a fair share of the rides, seems not to concern this private firm, despite (so far little) public critique. This, too, is not a case of obvious formal discrimination, but the devil, as always, is in the details.

Segregation is a blueprint underpinning many of the state’s systems. Public transport is in the spotlight, because it involves so many issues: from residential segregation, through labor struggles, and access to rights, to free speech in the public domain.

So far, Israeli policy makers make sure to stay on the safe side of a de-jure separation, but often their daily actions speak louder than laws. For now, one plan of action was shelved, but it might be aired again when conditions are more ‘favorable’ to the government. We will undoubtedly hear of it in the future. 

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