Bus segregation drives home West Bank plight

Introduction of Palestinian-only bus lines highlight West Bank residents’ dependence on Israel’s labour market.

Rights groups have criticised Israel's launch of Palestinian-only buses to bring day labourers to Israel [AP]

Kafr ad-Dik, Palestinian Territories – Sitting on the rooftop of his family’s home, overlooking the rolling green hills of the northern West Bank, Fares Dik paints a grim picture of life here.

“Young people graduate and don’t have work. People have families and don’t have work. The [Palestinian Authority] doesn’t have anything to make the economic situation better,” says Dik, a researcher in Kafr ad-Dik, a village of 6,000 residents in the West Bank.

Kafr ad-Dik is a traditional Palestinian farming village. Israeli restrictions on accessing agricultural lands and other resources, however, gradually forced residents to look for other sources of income.

People in Kafr ad-Dik are now struggling to find work amid a lack of opportunities and a weak Palestinian economy. “We don’t have resources in Kafr ad-Dik. We don’t have land and there are no factories,” Dik says.

About 400 residents now work in Palestinian Authority (PA) ministries or security services. At least 150 went to Israel to find low-paying jobs – some without permits – and more than 500 local university graduates are unemployed, he says.

“All the people suffer now,” Dik says. “Inside, people are [like] a volcano. People smile because they [have] hope, but the hope now is less and less.”

Segregated buses

 Israeli segregated buses get mixed reviews


Last week, Israel launched two bus lines in the West Bank for Palestinians only. The move reportedly came after Jewish settlers said Palestinians on mixed buses presented a security risk.

The segregated buses highlight Palestinians’ dependence on the Israeli labour market. Faced with countless Israeli restrictions on movement and access to resources, and strict economic regulations, Palestinians have for decades sought work in Israel.

An estimated 60,000 Palestinians currently work in Israel and in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, performing mostly low-wage, manual labour. Human rights groups estimate half of these workers are in Israel illegally, without the necessary work permit. Palestinians must be older than 26 years old, married, and pass a security check to be eligible for work permits in Israel.

Last Monday, hundreds of Palestinian workers queued to get on the new, Palestinian-only buses. Operated by Israeli company Afikim, the segregated buses take the workers from an Israeli military checkpoint near their homes in the West Bank to their workplaces in Israel.

“This is a goodwill gesture,” Uzi Itzhaki, director of the Transport Ministry, told Israel Radio last week. “These lines are intended to serve the Palestinian workers.”

But critics say the buses demonstrate Israel’s discrimination, and cement Israeli apartheid in the occupied West Bank.

“The attempt at bus segregation is appalling, and the current arguments about ‘security needs’ and ‘overcrowding’ must not be allowed to camouflage the blatant racism of the demand to remove Palestinians from buses,” said Jessica Montell, director of Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. 

Last November, reports surfaced that Israeli police officers were removing Palestinian workers from buses serving illegal Israeli settlements. The decision was reportedly taken after Israeli settlers complained about the “security risk” posed by Palestinians using the same buses as them.

Israel has for years been closing most possibilities for workers from the West Bank and Gaza to work in Israel, without allowing any kind of alternative employment opportunities.”

– Assaf Adiv, Workers Advice Centre

When contacted in November, the Israeli Transportation Ministry denied claims it would be instating Palestinian-only bus lines in the West Bank.

According to Assaf Adiv, from the Workers Advice Centre (WAC), a local organisation that supports Palestinian workers’ rights, the buses signal just how much control Israel has over the Palestinian labour force and economy.

“Israel has for years been closing most possibilities for workers from the West Bank and Gaza to work in Israel, without allowing any kind of alternative employment opportunities,” Adiv says. “The result is absolute economic destruction and devastation in the Palestinian areas.”

Working in Israel

Until the late 1980s, Palestinians working in Israel as day labourers represented one-third of the employed Palestinian population, and brought in more than 25 percent of the Palestinian territories’ gross national product in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The signing of the Oslo Accords peace agreement in the early 1990s, however, saw Israel impose gradual restrictions on Palestinian movement, especially that of workers. This included a stringent permit system through which the Israeli military chose who can work in Israel based on security, political, or arbitrary considerations.

After the outbreak of the second Intifada, the number of Palestinian workers in Israel fell dramatically, from about 115,000 in 1999 to some 9,000 by mid-2001.

Workers from the Gaza Strip, which the Israeli authorities began sealing off as early as the 1990s, now have almost no access to Israel or the West Bank, and the coastal territory is suffering from a devastating lack of development.

As it became more complicated – and less profitable – for Israeli employers to bring Palestinian labourers into Israel, workers from the Philippines, China, Thailand and Eastern Europe, among other places, were brought in instead.

This posed a new problem for Israel, however, as Israeli politicians saw the rising number of non-Jewish migrant workers as a threat to maintaining the state’s Jewish majority. As a result, Israel recently increased its quota of Palestinian workers, arguing that Palestinians are preferable to migrant labourers since they leave after their workday ends.

“The increase in permit granting is supposed to reduce the activity of the foreign workers who stay in Israel for long periods,” says an email statement from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a branch of Israel’s defence ministry administering the West Bank.

“The solution is to dismantle the structure that … forces these workers to go to work in an economy that exploits them.

– Samia Botmeh, Birzeit University

Dependent on aid

Without private-sector investment and control of resources, Palestinians have become almost completely reliant on international aid, which totalled $1bn in 2011.

Today, the Palestinian Authority has accrued $3bn in debt and is facing the largest funding crisis in its almost 20-year history. The overall unemployment rate in the occupied territories hovered just below 23 percent in 2012, with youth unemployment reaching 30 percent in the West Bank and 52 percent in the Gaza Strip.

Last September, thousands of Palestinians protested high living costs and lack of job opportunities, and demanded the cancellation of the Paris Protocol, an agreement that binds the Palestinian and Israeli economies together.

Samia Botmeh, head of the centre for development studies at Birzeit University in Ramallah, said the new segregated buses in the West Bank should be seen as part of a system forcing Palestinians to depend on the Israeli labour market.

“The solution to this problem is not to tell Israel to close its labour market, or tell Palestinians not to go work in Israel,” Botmeh says. “The solution is to dismantle the structure that … forces these workers to go to work in an economy that exploits them.”

Source: Al Jazeera