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'Palestinian-only' buses widen divide

| Monday, March 4, 2013, 5:48 p.m.

JERUSALEM — Israel's decision to introduce a pair of “Palestinian-only” bus lines in the West Bank on Monday — presented by the government as a goodwill gesture, assailed by critics as racism and welcomed by Palestinian riders — is shining a light on the messy situation resulting from 45 years of military occupation and Jewish settlements in the area.

While full and formal peace remains distant, the Jewish and Palestinian populations of the West Bank are so intertwined that daily routines are often shaped in mind-boggling ways. Military checkpoints, special permits and different sets of laws are all part of everyday life, and even steps that are well-intentioned, such as the new bus lines, can backfire and spark controversy.

Israeli peace activists condemned the bus lines as racist, while Palestinian riders seemed to like the arrangement. Israeli officials insisted that Palestinians could still ride regular buses if they choose — despite Palestinian claims they are hardly welcomed there by Jewish settlers.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and has built a network of settlements throughout the territory that are now home to more than 300,000 Israelis. Yet another 200,000 live in adjacent east Jerusalem — occupied, annexed and expanded to include land that was once in the West Bank.

The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem as part of a future independent state and say the settlements are illegal obstacles to their dreams of statehood — a view that is widely shared by the international community.

Despite chilly relations, Jewish and Palestinian residents of the West Bank come into frequent contact. Israeli roads serving the settlements pass by Palestinian villages, tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers work in Jewish settlements and Israel proper, and the Israeli military finds itself serving as a de facto police force by maintaining checkpoints and other crossings to keep tabs on Palestinians.

Israel said it decided to begin the new bus lines to help make life easier for Palestinians permitted to work in Israel, where jobs are more abundant and better paying than in the West Bank.

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