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Israeli political wheeling and dealing: A recipe for segregation

The formation of what is probably the most right-wing government in Israel’s history leaves very little hope of any improvement

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The new Israeli government was barely sworn in when it was announced that for security reasons Palestinians would be barred from using Israeli buses in the West Bank. Ever since the days of the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s, the battle against segregation on buses has become a symbol of resistance against racial discrimination. Rosa Parks, by the simple act of defiance in refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama to a white person, turned into a hero and a symbol in resisting all forms of racial discrimination. Similarly, segregation on buses in South Africa during the Apartheid years encapsulated the arbitrary racist nature of the country and its institutions. In the light of this recent historical lesson, one wonders how the Israeli security establishment and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon could be simultaneously insensitive and also oblivious to the international and domestic outcry to such an act of immoral folly.

Restrictions on employment and movement or right of assembly deprive Palestinians of some basic human rights, restrictions that the settlers are not subjected to

Yossi Mekelberg

Israel habitually utilizes security concerns to justify human rights violations. It alleges that to have both Jews and Palestinians commuting on the same buses presents a security risk to the Jewish commuters. In this instance Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to comprehend the disastrous public relations consequences of this policy for Israel, and suspended it for a “review.” The proposed segregation would have made the lives of Palestinian day laborers, that work in Israel and use these buses, unjustifiably more difficult. It would have required of them to take separate buses after crossing back from Israel proper into the West Bank, instead of carrying on with the Israeli public transportation used by the Jewish settlers who live in the territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

Not an isolated case

This is not an isolated case of Israeli decision makers flippantly taking a decision with far-reaching implications for the lives of ordinary Palestinians in order to appease the Jewish settlers and their security concerns. This is done even when the actual threat to the settlements is low, and in complete disregard to the hardships it causes the Palestinian population. In recent years the number of Palestinian day laborers permitted to work in Israel and the Jewish settlements has decreased substantially to less than fifty thousand out of a population of more than two and half million. Those who are permitted to cross the border into Israel are very carefully vetted, and even according the Israeli security experts pose minimal risk; otherwise they would have not been granted work permits. The scenario portrayed by Mr. Ya’alon of “twenty Arabs on a bus with a Jewish driver, two or three passengers and one soldier with a gun is a set-up for an attack,” is regarded as a very unlikely scenario. The pilot scheme seems to be scrapped for the time being, however, it is a clear reflection of the state of mind of those who lead the new Israeli government. It also demonstrates how the leadership has been almost entirely taken over by the representatives and interests of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. In this case the media and PR savvy Netanyahu immediately grasped that the damage to Israel’s image was far greater than any security benefits to be achieved or gaining favor with his settler political partners. In such a narrow coalition that requires the support of the settlers’ representatives, the pressures will only mount to please them.

Moreover, this recent sorry saga of bus segregation is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of discrimination against Palestinians in the West Bank compared to the privileged settlers who behave as the masters of the (occupied) land. Palestinians do not enjoy the same level of access to utilities such as water, electricity or gas as that enjoyed by the settlers who live close by. Schools are deprived of resources, and Palestinians do not have access to some of the modern road system built exclusively for the settlers. Above all they are practically subjected to a different legal system. Though the occupied West Bank has never been annexed to Israel, in most cases settlers are subject to Israeli civil law, while Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law. Consequently, Palestinians’ liberties and legal guarantees are not protected similarly to those of Israelis living in the West Bank. Restrictions on employment and movement or right of assembly deprive Palestinians of some basic human rights, restrictions that the settlers are not subjected to. Furthermore, among the daily hardships that Palestinians are forced to endure are prolonged queues in checkpoints, arbitrary detentions and arrests without trial and violence against them by settlers and members of the security forces. The vast majority of these ugly manifestations of the Israeli occupation are in utter contempt of international law and go unpunished and unchecked.

Little hope

The formation of what is probably the most right-wing government in Israel’s history leaves very little hope of any improvement in these discriminatory policies; probably it is more realistic to expect a worsening in the violation of Palestinian human rights. In a quite bizarre manner, though indicative of this government’s direction, the new Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told ministry employees, when she first appeared before them, that Israeli diplomats worldwide need to engage with foreign governments according to the principle of “being right and not just smart.” Her diplomacy suggests, “It’s important to say [that] this land is ours. All of it is ours. We didn’t come here to apologize for that.”

When leading officials within the Israeli government hold views which reject a two-state solution and deny the Palestinian’s right to any part of the country, it is no surprise then, when racially discriminatory policies such as bus segregation take hold. The reaction from the Israeli opposition against bus segregation in the West Bank was robust, and the controversy was no doubt an important sign to the opposition parties in Israel and the international community that without pro-active and assertive opposition to these type of policies, Israel is on a slippery slope of edging closer and closer to becoming an Apartheid-like state.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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