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When buses navigate between apartheid and coexistence

Crowdsourcing a way out of intolerable conditions on bus lines used by Palestinians and Israelis from the West Bank

Shortly after the Afikim bus company started operating the public transit routes along the Trans-Samaria Highway, growing numbers of Palestinians began to discover the conveniences and affordability of Israeli subsidized transportation. Inevitably, this new revelation was bound to generate not only a demographic transportation shift, but new, singularly challenging Israeli-Palestinian coexistence dynamics as well.

Departure from Israeli communities and cities along the highway remains relatively familiar for Israeli passengers, as bus lines originate in and travel throughout Area C communities where Palestinians are not permitted free access. However, return lines from Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva, where Palestinian work permits function as virtual border passes, never make it very far before filling up with passengers, the overwhelming majority of whom are often Palestinian.

The initial attempt to petition the Israeli government for a solution to the bus issue was rooted in security concerns on the part of Israeli passengers, who feared terrorism and violence. The government responded by opening exclusively Palestinian bus routes, with the objective of pleasing both populations: the Palestinians could enjoy reliable service, while Israelis could travel without fear of security threats. Israel’s Ministry of Transportation and Ministry of Defense refused to allow these new bus lines to evolve into a form of apartheid segregation, stressing that Palestinians were permitted to take full advantage of all forms of Israeli public transportation. As a result, though reports of Arab verbal, physical and even sexual abuse persist, subjective fears of similar incidents are frequently secondary to the more elementary, objective challenge of how to secure a seat on the bus.

Israeli and Palestinian travelers who wait in line for the 86, 186 or 286 lines during rush hour have little hope of boarding the overcrowded buses. Despite departures every 6 to 12 minutes, a two hour waiting period has become the new normal, with 5, 10 and sometimes 15 buses driving past the stops with no room to allow additional passengers to alight. The situation has gone from worse to intolerable. With the exception of plans to add more lines to the routes to ease congestion, a comprehensive solution is nowhere in sight. Though partially due to inter-ministerial reciprocal pass-the-buck management tactics, this challenge cannot be remedied until Israel and the international powers-that-be dispel ambiguity and determine whether these populations are to be separated, or to coexist.

If segregated buses are apartheid policy, what, then, is the essential nature of a two-state solution? On the flip side, if economic opportunity, coexistence and normalization are to be positioned as primary objectives, what do they look like when populations are riddled with mutual discomfort and potentially explosive distrust? These challenges personify the core of Israel’s apartheid-coexistence paradox. To address this issue effectively is to lay the groundwork for a progressive future for all.

The testing ground is neither here, nor there. It will not be found in refugee camps, nor will it be bred in formidable safe-haven communities. We’re dealing with a dynamic laboratory that travels through space and time, characterized by tens of thousands of involuntary subjects and a myriad of variables. It’s about real people, trying to get by, sharing the same services, looking for ways to make things better for everyone. So while diplomats continue talking about borders, national rights and demographic trajectories, the people whose lives would be most directly affected by negotiations simply want to return home at the end of a long day.

How do we make this work? What’s your solution? Please share your comments. I look forward to passing your suggestions along.

About the Author
Avi Zimmerman is the City of Ariel's international representative. He is the Executive Director of American Friends of Ariel and the Founder of TALK17.