Sitting on the Arab-run No. 1 bus from Damascus Gate to Isawiya, it’s hard to imagine a more innocuous mode of transportation. The bus is clean, modern and punctual, and the commuters are no different from their west Jerusalem counterparts. They get on the bus, pay the fare, find a seat and eventually get off. What’s so complicated about that?

But of course, in Jerusalem, nothing is as simple as it seems.

The Arab bus system in east Jerusalem functions just like its Egged counterpart in west Jerusalem, providing a much needed service for a segment of the city’s population. But to Jews – even those for whom the buses are more convenient than Egged lines – the Arab system is either unknown or perceived as dangerous.

On the line

“Have I ridden on one of those buses?” repeats Sasha, a student at a college located in the center of the city. “Those buses? I think they’re for Arabs.”

Dafna, a Jerusalem resident and student at Hebrew University, goes one step further. Citing “security,” she says that on the weekends, when Egged buses are not running, she prefers to walk from French Hill to the city center – roughly six kilometers – rather than take an Arab bus.

It is Yonatan, a Jerusalem resident who works in the Romema neighborhood, who offers the bluntest explanation yet as to why he wouldn’t ride on an Arab bus.

“I might get stabbed,” he says, “because I’m a Jew.”

Not surprisingly, Hazan, an Arab Israeli student at the Hebrew University campus in French Hill, had no qualms about taking the Arab bus line, but added that doing so in no way reflects his position on a divided Jerusalem. Rather, for him, it’s simply a matter of pragmatism.

“I take them when there aren’t any Egged buses,” he said. “And they’re cheaper.”

Many Jewish commuters cited reasons ranging from cultural differences to security concerns when expressing reservations about riding on the Arab buses, but Hazan said that at least for him, such reservations did not exist in the reverse. Indeed, he viewed a ride on an Egged and an Arab bus in much the same way.

“From the perspective of quality, they’re basically the same,” Hazan added. “[The main difference is] where I want to go.”

Although some drivers of the Arab buses – like Muhammad, who operates the line from east Jerusalem to Bethlehem – insist that both Jews and Arabs patronize their service, a few rides on various Arab bus lines quickly put the situation in perspective. The passengers on the buses are almost entirely Arab, and a Hebrew speaker is most certainly viewed as a curiosity, to say the least.

But could it really be that in a city so well known for its sensitivity to division, residents in both the east and west have accepted without a murmur a transportation system that effectively carves the capital in half?

According to Moshe Amirav, city councilman from 1989 to 1993, not only is that precisely the case, but it is the deliberate consequence of a municipal policy which he developed.

“I was named by Teddy Kollek to be in charge of services in east Jerusalem… and I came to [him] with a proposition,” Amirav relates. “I said, ‘What we have to do is acknowledge [the facts on the ground]. We say every day united Jerusalem, united Jerusalem, but it’s not united. So let’s do things in a way that will be best for the interests of Arabs in east Jerusalem.’

“My plan was – and this is what I presented to Teddy Kollek – to give them autonomy,” he continues. Doing so, Amirav explains, meant waiving municipal rental fees and allowing the owners to invest in private security instead.

“When I presented him with this plan, I said, ‘You understand the political significance of this, that we’re giving autonomy to the Arabs?’” Amirav says. “[Kollek] said, ‘Okay. Nobody will know it, anyway.’”

While Amir Cheshin, former adviser to Teddy Kollek on Arab affairs, could not confirm the details of Amirav’s conversation with the mayor, he did express a similar assessment of the situation.

“Just like the electricity [suppliers in east Jerusalem], the Arab bus lines represent a form of autonomy,” Cheshin says, adding that the phrases, “‘united city,’ ‘one authority’ and ‘one government’ – all of these comments are nonsense.”

“Nobody means that seriously,” Cheshin says. “Nobody thinks that Jerusalem is united.”

ARAB-RUN buses in Jerusalem can be traced back to 1948, just after the War of Independence. Prior to that year, the Central Bus Station was on Jaffa Road – although not where it currently stands – and was used by both Jews and Arabs. However, with the city split in two, a new central bus station was built by the Jordanians on Sultan Suleiman Street, in east Jerusalem.

In 1967, Israel pushed the Jordanians out of east Jerusalem, thus unifying the city. But the separation of public transportation remained. One Jerusalem central bus station serviced west Jerusalem, and the other central bus station continued to function as it had under the Jordanians – with 12 separate lines servicing east Jerusalem residents and the outlying Arab villages.

And here is where the controversy begins.

There is no shortage of data on the difficulties Israel has had fully asserting its control over the eastern portion of its capital. While the area was officially annexed immediately following the Six Day War, its ambiguous status is still reflected in the eclectic mix of basic services its residents receive. Water and electricity come from Jordan, curriculums for many schools are developed in Ramallah and master plans for construction of residential neighborhoods… are nonexistent.

So how did public transportation in east Jerusalem transition so easily into Israeli hands? One day it was run by Jordanians, the next by Israelis, and for nearly 20 years it functioned without a hitch. Why was this service spared any complications?

The answer, according to Amirav, goes beyond the municipal line, and into the world of covert diplomacy.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, [there was] Israeli-Jordanian cooperation in trying to rule Jerusalem,” Amirav explains. “It was secret, nobody knew it.”

Secret, of course, because until the signing of the peace treaty in 1994, Israel was still technically at war with its neighbor. Yet according to the former city councilman, this didn’t deter then-Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek from phoning up Jordan’s King Hussein and talking to him directly.

“That was the situation,” says Amirav, who held the transportation and roads portfolio at the time, and worked closely with the mayor on the matter. “He… and I would cooperate with the Jordanian authorities in keeping east Jerusalem quiet.”

And one way of doing that, he says, was by ensuring that the Arab buses ran smoothly.

Or course, it wouldn’t be Jerusalem if such a statement didn’t go unchallenged.

“Never heard of this, ever,” says Cheshin.

“We came in ’67 and found that… there were services already in place,” he recalls. “One of those services… was public transportation. There were 10 or 12 private companies that provided public transportation in Jerusalem and the periphery, and each company was in control of one line.

“The only thing that Israel did was to ensure that these companies abided by the law – Israeli law. And this is what happened, since 1967,” Cheshin continues. “There were periods like the intifada where the law [wasn’t carefully observed], and there were periods where things were better. Today, things are working quite well, and the companies are complying with [Transportation Ministry regulations].”

But as for a secret pact with Jordan which guaranteed order and stability in the city, Cheshin is adamant.

“There was nothing with Jordan,” he maintains. “None of this nonsense.”

The controversy, however, doesn’t end there. With the start of the first intifada in 1987, the security situation in east Jerusalem quickly deteriorated. And so too, according to Amirav, did the Jordanian-Israeli understanding.

“The first intifada brought an end to the Jordanian presence in east Jerusalem,” he says.

Whether or not 20 years of stable public transportation in east Jerusalem was indeed an outgrowth of secret cooperation with Jordan may never be known for sure. But what is certain is that the situation drastically changed in 1987. A lack of governmental oversight created a virtual free-for-all on the roads, and a new mode of public transportation was born: the transit system.

Transit buses are similar to the shuttle cab services of today, which run between cities throughout Israel, as well as within cities such as Tel Aviv. However, unlike today’s shuttle buses, the transit service in east Jerusalem was completely illegal. Controlled by various criminal organizations, the shuttles essentially hijacked the bus routes, and all but destroyed a system that had been in place for 40 years.

“These transits would stop at a bus stop, pick up the passengers for some reduced price, and when the buses came there weren’t any passengers,” Cheshin explains. “The number of transits grew from day to day, until there was a jungle of transits.”

The bus drivers, recognizing that the growing lawlessness spelled their economic demise, desperately turned to the state for help.

“The bus drivers [approached the municipality and] the police on this matter, saying that the transits were stealing their livelihood,” Cheshin says. “The police couldn’t have cared less. Neither the police nor the Transportation Ministry. They said that the more chaos, the better.”

Such apathy seems strange considering that security forces were already struggling to contain a violent Palestinian uprising. How “more chaos” would help the situation is downright bewildering. But Danny Zaidman, a lawyer and long-time advocate for east Jerusalem residents, suggests an explanation:

“Initially, at the behest of the Israeli establishment… these cab drivers – or transits – were allowed to do these things, in return for services rendered – collaboration with the Israeli authorities, things of that nature,” he says.

“But it later turned into a full-blown industry,” Zaidman continues. “And the transit drivers were considered to be the bane of east Jerusalem. There were a lot of criminal elements, a lot of accidents, incidents of rape, child abuse, turf wars.”

“Yes, of course this is true,” Amirav confirms. “The Shin Bet was working with many companies.” However, Cheshin once again denies the controversial assertion.

“There was nothing with Jordan, nothing with the transits or the criminals, and nothing with the buses,” he states flatly.

By the mid-1990s, the situation had gotten so out of control that the police finally had to step in. But it took a while before they got their footing.

“I was in a meeting where the police suggested to the owners of the Arab buses that they [the owners] plant ‘agents’ of their own on the transits, and if the transit takes money, to file a complaint with the police and then to go to court and testify against the drivers,” Cheshin says. “That is what is called ‘death sentences’ for the agents. No bus owner agreed to this. What Arab would agree to ride as an agent on a transit, and then testify against the driver?” The process of eliminating the transits took years to complete, during which time a concerted effort was made to revive the struggling pre-intifada bus system. As Amirav held the transportation and roads portfolio at the time, the responsibility for this effort fell on his shoulders.

“For my budget, I put about $200,000 into the renovation of the central bus station,” he says. “In addition, I brought the heads of these companies to my office.”

Suspicious, they didn’t want to come and refused to recognize the authority of an official from the western municipality, Amirav recalls.

“I made it very clear that we didn’t want to run their lives, or the buses, but rather we were interested in [the system] being clean and safe,” he says. “They agreed, and since then they run their own business; their buses are safe.”

And city hall stays out of their affairs.

In a statement to the press, the Jerusalem Municipality elaborated on the transportation reforms and what motivated them.

“The shortage of buses and the excess of transits overloaded the highway infrastructure. Many of the transits didn’t operate legally and didn’t adhere to a fixed time schedule,” the statement read. “Furthermore, criminal activity was uncovered – such as drivers with traffic violations, and in many cases, without valid licenses.”

In collaboration with the Transportation Ministry and other government bodies, the municipality implemented a four-point reform that included the creation of 17 bus companies for the 17 neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, and a promise by these companies to comply with transportation regulations in return for the issuance of a bus license, the statement said.

The municipality denied, however, that the police were in any way responsible for the chaotic transit situation.

“Contrary to the claim that the police supported the illegal [transits], in fact the police were full and integral partners in the daily supervision, which went on for months until the phenomenon of the illegal transportation was dramatically reduced,” a statement said.

AS FOR the claim that a separate Arab bus system was part of a de facto separation of the city that continued after 1967, those currently in municipal office are adamant that this was never the case.

“That’s nonsense,” says Likud city councilman Elisha Peleg in response to the claim that the bus lines are representative of a divided city. “There are buses that service only segments of the religious population… so what, are they separate cities, too?”

“In any case, I can tell you that the Jerusalem light rail will go through both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods,” he adds.

Dudi Hershkovitz, Israel Beiteinu city councilman and current holder of the transportation and roads portfolio, agrees.

“I don’t think it’s possible to derive from this [municipal] policies, and if somebody tries to create a situation using the separate public transportation – where east Jerusalem is for Arabs, and west Jerusalem is for Jews – that person wouldn’t be successful. And this can be corroborated by the building that is being done in east Jerusalem,” he says.

“I’m happy that there are cheap community bus lines that service the local population… and probably the people who get on these buses are Arabs who need to get to their homes, and from their homes to work,” Hershkovitz continues. “But there is nothing here that affects our sovereignty in Jerusalem – in all of Jerusalem.”
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