MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home/Bayit Yehudi), Deputy Chairman of the Knesset Committee for affairs in Judea and Samaria, called a hearing Tuesday discussing serious problems with public transportation for both Jews and Arabs in the region.
The hearing examined escalating issues with Palestinian Arabs on the region's Afikim bus lines, including overcrowding, violence, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment against Jewish passengers.
The public transportation system in Judea and Samaria has faced so many difficulties over the past year that many Jewish residents are prevented from returning home from work on a regular basis.
In April 2013, Central Command decided to allow tens of thousands of Palestinian Arab workers to travel on the region's public transportation systems between Judea and Samaria and other parts of Israel, and allowed an additional 5000 workers to be employed in workplaces outside of Palestinian Arab areas.
In addition, due to years of not enforcing policies preventing Palestinian Arabs from moving illegally between regions in Judea and Samaria, tens of thousands of Arabs have been taking public transportation within the region without proper documentation.
All of these measures were enacted without consultation with the Ministry of Transportation, and without enacting counter-measures to add busses to existing lines and new routes for an increasing number of possible destinations.
As a result, Jewish residents of several communities along the roads leading out of Judea and Samaria, and along the road between Karnei Shomron and Kedumim, have been prevented entirely from alighting busses returning from the Center to their communities.
On the hour, every hour, tens of Palestinian Arab workers take up badly needed space on the bus lines, filling the maximum quota of legal bus passengers and preventing Jewish residents from returning home safely.
If a teenager, soldier, or other passenger does succeed to squeeze onto the bus, they are often rewarded with sexual or physical assaults, threats, property damage, and general feelings of fear. The bottom line is, no Jewish resident is guaranteed a safe ride home.
The Knesset Committee discussed several hard cases, heard testimony, and examined options, but no solution has been offered yet to the problem.
Yogev opened the hearing by pointing out that the term "nightmare" is "definitely not an overstatement."
Resident Testimonies: Horror Stories
A, a resident of Ariel, told her story of a traumatic event that happened to her when she was returning home from work. "Every ride is a nightmare for me. A few months ago I came home from work...the bus was packed, so I had to sit next to an Arab man. He began touching me all over. I told him to stop, but what could I do? -The bus was packed with Arabs and I could barely move," she recounted.
The assault continued for over an hour. "I was too frightened to scream. All I could do is call my mother. Since then I am terrified to go home - I just call my mother every time I'm on my way back. It's a nightmare."
Elad Rahamim (26), another Ariel resident, stated, "The whole situation depresses me - it's impossible to explain or describe. My parents are also despondent. I had to leave Ariel because I couldn't get home at night," he explained. "It makes no sense that I had to travel every day with emergency tear gas in my bag. It makes no sense that soldiers have to wait at a bus stop for hours as bus after bus passes by and not a single one stops. That female soldiers are crushed between Arab men. It makes no sense that Ariel residents are terrified to go home every day. If something happened, there would be nothing that anyone could do."
Eli Shaviro, current mayor of Ariel, also gave testimony at the hearing. "Security issues have doubled. If unchecked, the situation will encourage Palestinian Arabs to cross into Israel's urban centers and do as they please," he said. "Central Command believes that there is no security risk. I disagree with him! Buses packed with Palestinian Arabs with a Jewish minority is a definite security risk!"
He continued, "All it takes is one tired soldier to fall asleep with his gun at his side for there to be a terror attack or shooting [. . .] Central Command has buried its head in the sand."
Yigal Lahav, head of the Karnei Shomron Regional Council, urged the Knesset to take care of the problem before a major incident occurs. "We can discuss this now in peace, or we can wait until another terror attack breaks and everyone will be wringing their hands in panic, trying to find a solution," he stated. "The Palestinians have found our weakest point, the Left ran to show their humanitarianism, and now the problem is not being solved. We are losing residents because of the situation."
Lahav declared, "I'm telling you - the situation can only end in murder! Either a father will seek revenge after a sexual assault on his daughter, or a Palestinian Arab will take a soldier's gun and begin a killing spree. No one wants to touch this 'hot potato' of an issue."
Justifications: Statements from Regional Authorities
The General of the Home Guard at Central Command justified the decision, claiming "we did at least two years of research. We conducted studies and did surveillance. Statistically, most of the Arabs crossing into Central Israel are not illegals," he insisted. "Most of them just happen to return home via public transportation. Very few complaints have been filed with police until now - just 3."
He continued, "Central Command is not responsible for this. We allow Palestinians to travel via public transport. We support reducing the number of stops outside of Jewish villages. However, the solution here is not with us - it's with the Ministry of Transportation."
The Chairman of Transit from the National Civil Administration addressed the Palestinian Arabs directly. "Until 6 months ago, you were denied access to public transportation - and those who advocated for you are your employers, who were unwilling to pay inflated transportation costs for you," he said. "As a lawful state, we cannot prevent any citizen from taking public transportation. There are only two limitations: crossing out of Judea and Samaria without the necessary permits, and entering Jewish villages."
A police representative also joined the hearing. "We conduct searches, screen for illegal aliens, and can take people off the bus not only in theory, but in practice."
Experts: Response of Transportation Companies and Authorities
The CEO of the Afikim bus company explained that, "In April, Central Command decided to allow Palestinian Arabs the right to public transportation. The police are not responsible for enforcing it, especially not now. It is legal. When it was illegal Palestinian Arabs were prevented from traveling due to police presence at checkpoints. Now that they are free to return home, the Arab population has latched on very quickly [. . .] it is overwhelming," he said.
He continued, "Most of the drivers are Jewish residents from local villages. We also have some Arab drivers, and it's totally fine. The problem is the illegal aliens, which the drivers are not required or obligated to check status for before alighting. That is the role of security agencies. It is a known fact, however, that we have a lot of illegals on our buses."
Dror Ganon, Deputy Director of the Ministry of Transportation, responded, "Issues with illegal aliens do not concern us; our department is simply public transportation. We've inherited the problem and we need to solve it within the year. We are creating solutions and are doing the best we can," he claims. "By December, we should have added tens of buses to route schedules."
Politics: Responses from MKs
MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) was asked about the possibility of providing separate lines for Arabs and Jews. She rejected the idea, calling it "discrimination."
MK Yoni Chetboun (Jewish Homei) responded, "we have to put all the facts on the table here: when the government and IDF generals discuss the situation in Judea and Samaria, it's no wonder that the conversation revolves around allowing Palestinians to work and not the security risks to Israeli citizens," he said. "Adding bus lines is important, but preventing sexual assaults by Arab men on Jewish girls is a security issue. That is the reality. Only direct lines from Jewish villages to Central Israeli cities will solve the problem."
Yogev ended the hearing by giving "homework" to attendees to think about possible solutions. He also directed the Ministers of Transportation, Defense, and Internal Security to meet and devise a solution to the impossible situation.
Another meeting will be held in about two months. In the meantime, Yogev has urged those present to "imagine that it's your daughter on that bus."