Palestinians may use Israel's public transportation system anywhere they want, Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz said in a statement Monday after new Palestinian-only buses began operating on Monday in the northern Samaria.
Israeli media reported Monday that according to the government's plans, Palestinian day laborers who wish to enter Israel would not be allowed to continue using certain lines that are used by Jews in the northern Samaria, and instead will be removed from those buses once they reach the Eyal checkpoint and transferred to bus lines dedicated specifically to Palestinian travel.
According to Ynet, the new system would provide for better security, because the passengers on the regular lines are usually exempt from screening at the checkpoint.
While there is no rule that bars Palestinians from using the public transportation in Judea and Samaria and in Israel-proper, Haaretz has reported that Israeli forces will now enforce a new policy under which Palestinians on mixed buses would be routinely stopped at checkpoints and then be forced to continue using the designated buses.
The left-wing Meretz party decried the move, asking Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to scrap the plan. The party's leader, MK Zehava Gal-On, wrote an urgent letter to Katz, saying that "segregated buses" must "cease operating immediately."
"Segregated busing that is based on ethnicity was commonplace in racist regimes around the world and it is unacceptable to have it in a democratic country," she wrote.
The Haaretz daily reported that the government ministry decided to operate the buses after Jewish settlers complained that Palestinians on mixed buses 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 Transportation and Road Safety Ministry said the new lines would "improve public transport services for Palestinian workers entering Israel" and replace unlicensed operators who charge Palestinian travelers "exorbitant prices."
"The ministry has not issued any instruction or prohibition that prevents Palestinian workers from traveling on public transport in Israel nor in Judea and Samaria," it said in its statement Monday. "Furthermore, the ministry is not authorized to prevent any passenger from using public transport services."
The ministry further noted that it will ensure Palestinians are not disenfranchised. "Minister Yisrael Katz has instructed the director-general of his office to make sure that Palestinians entering Israel will be allowed to board all public buses, including those that currently run in Judea and Samaria," the statement read. "In addition, Katz ordered that all the new lines that began operating on Monday increase their frequency in order to meet demand."
Herzl Ben-Zvi, mayor of the Karnei Shomron settlement, said the new lines "answer the needs of all passengers — Palestinians and settlers" because they relieve overcrowding on buses in the area.