Two Palestinians-only bus lines have been launched by Israel in the occupied West Bank, a move described as racist by an Israeli rights group.
The Transport Ministry said it was an improvement in service.
According to left-wing Haaretz daily, the lines were opened on Monday and are meant to be used by Palestinian labourers who are travelling between the West Bank and Israel.
The launch of the bus lines come after Jewish settlers said that Palestinians on mixed buses on the Trans-Samaria road between the West Bank and Tel Aviv were a security risk.
“Creating separate bus lines for Israeli Jews and Palestinians is a revolting plan,” Jessica Montell, director of the B’Tselem rights group, said on Army Radio. “This is simply racism. Such a plan cannot be justified with claims of security needs or overcrowding.”
The two new lines will “improve public transport services for Palestinian workers entering Israel” , said the Transport Ministry, adding that they would replace pirate buses which were charging them “exorbitant prices”.
“The Ministry of Transport has not issued any instruction or prohibition that prevents Palestinian workers from travelling on public transport in Israel nor in Judea and Samaria,” it said, referring to the West Bank.
“Furthermore, the Ministry of Transport is not authorised to prevent any passenger from using public transport services.”
“They are institutionalizing segregated services for Jews and non-Jews,” said Ofra Yeshua-Lyth, an activist with Women For Civil Disobedience, an Israeli-Palestinian campaign group.
“Many people don’t class the Israeli situation as apartheid because for a long time, Israel refrained from the characteristics of petty apartheid, like separate roads, cafés and buses. This bus situation is a step in the direction of petty apartheid because people are being segregated in their daily activities.”
Although Avner Ovadia, a transport ministry spokesperson, said there was no official ban on Palestinian workers travelling on public buses, rights groups voiced their concern that, at checkpoints in the West Bank, Israeli police would remove Palestinian passengers from regular bus lines and instruct them to use the new lines.
According to drivers with the Afikim bus company, which operates the Trans-Samaria route, Palestinians attempting to use the regular services would be pointed towards a different bus.
“We are not allowed to refuse service and we will not order anyone to get off the bus, but from what we were told … there will be checks at the checkpoint, and Palestinians will be asked to board their own buses,” one driver told Ynet, an Israeli news website.
According to Herzl Ben-Zvi, mayor of the Karnei Shomron settlement, the new lines “answer the needs of all passengers; Palestinians and settlers” because they would relieve overcrowding on buses in the area.
Official figures estimate that every day 29,000 Palestinians travel to jobs in Israel.