The Jewish Report Editorial

Buses, bloodshed and apartheid

  • Vanessa
Last Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled a proposed plan from his new defence ministry that would have forced Palestinian day labourers returning home from jobs inside Israel, to take separate buses from Jewish settlers who live in the territories after crossing back into the West Bank.
by VANESSA VALKIN | May 27, 2015

While some reports say that Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon had approved the proposal, other reports said he did not. It is also not clear if Netanyahu knew about the plan prior to it being brought before the Knesset or whether it caught him by surprise.

But either way, the timing of the vote could not have been worse for Israel. It occurred on the very same day that Fifa President Sepp Blatter visited Ramallah in the West Bank to try to convince the Palestine Football Association to drop a proposal for a vote on Israel’s suspension from Fifa for alleged discrimination against Palestinians. And the same day that the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, was visiting Israel to talk about furthering peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Netanyahu called the separate bus plan unacceptable following a tide of criticism both in the Knesset and from outside observers once the news broke. The policy, one of the first decisions by Netanyahu’s newly minted conservative government, opponents said, was scarily reminiscent of South Africa’s apartheid laws and would be a moral embarrassment for the country.

The apartheid law of separate buses, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, Act No 49 of 1953, legalised the racial segregation of public premises, vehicles and services; only public roads and streets were not included. It further allowed certain groups to be completely excluded based on race.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, considered a conservative, also publicly condemned the proposal while the leader of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, Zahava Gal-On, said: “This is how apartheid looks. There is no better or nicer way to put it. Separate buses for Jews and Palestinians prove that democracy and occupation cannot co-exist.”

Israel’s ministry of defence defended the policy, which had been brewing for months, as a security measure. It would have forced Palestinians to undergo security checks on the way home from work as well, and would have lengthened their commute.

Throughout history, public transport has been associated with civil rights battles. Rosa Parks’ refusal to obey a bus driver and give up her seat in the coloured section of a bus for a white passenger, and her arrest and court case for disobeying segregation laws became iconic in the fight for equal rights in the US in the 1950s.

And so too, in South African and Israeli history – buses have been connected to struggle and bloodshed.

During the apartheid era, Putco was the main "blacks only" bus transport company and was often seen as a symbol of the oppression. The company was frequently targeted in attacks and boycott actions. On September 5, 1984, a Putco bus was torched with the aid of a petrol bomb after Putco employees did not participate in a national anti-apartheid strike.

In the well-known Evaton Bus Boycott of the 1950s, people protested against poor services, fare increases and unfair employment practices instilled by transport operators.

In Israel, blood-splattered images of Israeli buses have been strewn across international media and recall some painful incidents in the country’s history. As recently as January this year, a Palestinian man from the West Bank stabbed at least 17 people in an attack on a bus in central Tel Aviv.

In 2012, an explosive device was detonated on a crowded passenger bus in Tel Aviv's business district by an Israeli citizen of Arab descent, injuring 28 civilians.

Netanyahu did well to scrap the separate bus proposal for many reasons. The discriminatory implications would have been hard to swallow for anyone and from Israel’s perspective, tough to defend amid growing global criticism of its policies. 

The world is watching closely as Fifa’s Blatter tries to protect Israeli football from being banned from international competition and as the EU’s Mogherini is under greater pressure to get tough on Israel.

But more importantly, it was a good move because separation creates further distrust. Our only hope for reconciliation is through dialogue.

Arabs and Israelis sitting alongside one another on a bus, is not going to be the solution for Middle East peace but it does create opportunities for contact - perhaps a smile, a helping hand for an elderly person - and these are steps in the right direction. 


  1. 3 nat cheiman 27 May
    [Racist comment removed - MODERATOR].

    The world won't understand but they also didn't understand Hitlers hatred for the Jews and subsequent seat camps.
    If a suicide bomber detonates on a bus with Israelis on it, who will take the blame?
    The world doesn't care.
  2. 2 Leslie Carr 28 May
    It would be great to be able to get the Jewish Report in pdf format which facilitates word searches so readily.
  3. 1 Bev Goldman 29 May
    Excellent article, Vanessa - well researched and very topical.  It's a real pleasure reading your editorials.


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