Israel bans tourists from key West Bank bus line
Bethlehem – Ma’an – Just days before Bethlehem’s busiest tourist season begins, Israeli authorities implemented a ban on foreign-passport holders traveling to Jerusalem on Palestinian buses.
On 11 December, Bethlehem tourists began to report being pulled off line 21, a route used predominantly by holders of East Jerusalem residency cards, as they stopped for inspection at the Jerusalem tunnel entrance into Israel.
For years, foreign-passport holders using public transportation could choose between the tunnel bus, which departs near Beit Jala, or Israel’s military checkpoint 300, known colloquially as Gilo or Rachel’s Tomb.
A high-ranking Israeli security official confirmed the policy change on Monday. “This issue is being resolved presently. Everything will be completed in a day or so, possibly even today,” the official said, confirming that, for now, redirecting foreign-passport holders from the tunnel to checkpoint 300 is a matter of policy.
Palestinian Authority security sources said the phenomenon follows a unilateral decision by Israeli authorities made months ago to ban foreigners from the route.
It was not clear, however, who ordered the changes, or why. Israeli army sources insisted they had nothing to do with the plan, but officials in the country’s Border Police, the paramilitary branch of the Israeli Police, said such orders could only have come from the military.
“The [army] commander makes the policy; we just implement it,” said a border guard official who insisted on anonymity. “If the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] says we can’t allow foreign people – it’s a policy.”
A PA police spokesman said he was aware of the issue but refused further comment, referring inquiries to the District Coordination Office (DCO), the local arm of Israel’s non-military, civil administration in the occupied Palestinian territories.
“We’ve been aware of the plan for three, maybe four months; I don’t know why they’d implement it now,” said a Palestinian who works with the DCO. Israel never provided any official or written explanation, he added, nor were local officials given a say in the matter.
Despite numerous inquiries this week to the Israeli military, Border Police, Civil Administration, and national police, no official was ever willing to offer an on-the-record explanation for the ban.
‘Rude’ and ‘threatening’ treatment
Among the first reports Ma’an received about the issue was from an American music teacher accessing Jerusalem to teach students of a local conservatory. She, along with three others, were told they could not re-board the bus after it was checked by soldiers. “They saw the foreigners and herded us to the side,” said 24-year-old Katie Rowold, a US citizen held up on Friday. “Then everyone got back on the bus except for us. … We had to get a service taxi to the walk-through checkpoint .”
Sandra Baille, a 64-year-old Canadian citizen, was on a bus with some luggage waiting to have her passport checked by soldiers. As custom generally allows women with children or bags, the sick, or the elderly to remain on the bus during inspections, Baille was surprised when a guard ordered her off the vehicle. “A young Israeli soldier with a mask on his face up to his nose boarded the bus and indicated to me with his arm to get off,” she explained. “I held out my passport so he could see I was an international, but he threw his arm [pointing] to the side. He didn’t say a word, he just pointed.”
Outside the bus, Baille found herself with a group of foreign citizens also waiting at the side of the road. When they asked what was going on, “we were told ‘new rules, new rules,'” Baille said. She was ordered to take her luggage, for a planned trip to northern Israel, Nazareth and the Galilee, off the bus, and watched Palestinian passengers get back on board. She waited again while the driver argued with guards, and heard the bus ordered to leave without the five foreigners. “We were left to walk up the hill” back to Beit Jala, she said.
Others explained how they had to flag down a cab willing to enter a PA area and drive back inside Bethlehem to cross through the Gilo checkpoint there, before ultimately catching another Palestinian bus on the other side of the cement wall. One international who asked not to be named described being left helpless on the side of the busy highway, while Israeli-plated cars zoomed past. “Luckily there was a taxi sitting there. I don’t know what we would have done.”
Baille, the Canadian national, described the guards’ treatment as rude, saying she could not understand what reason Israel would have to target tourists. “Its ironic,” she added. “All over Canada there are signs saying ‘Welcome to Israel,’ but in the end they wouldn’t let us in.” Canada was the test country for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ “Brand Israel” campaign.
Another group of six internationals – four Americans, a Canadian and German national – were warned by the driver of a 21 bus on Saturday that foreigners were no longer being permitted to travel via the tunnel. They said the driver eventually let them on, but that they were indeed refused passage through the checkpoint.
Bad news for Christmas
Reports of internationals being pulled off buses continued throughout the week, and several have noted longer lines at the Gilo checkpoint, making it increasingly difficult to access Jerusalem from Bethlehem.
However, the ban appears to apply only to Palestinian buses in the West Bank. Foreign nationals traveling on Israel’s Egged service, which connects the country’s settlements throughout the occupied territories, including in Bethlehem, into Israel, reported no problems at the tunnel checkpoint. Internationals in private cars were similarly unaffected.
It was not clear if the initiative to limit foreigners’ movement in the region was linked to prior passport restrictions. Mirroring the treatment received by Palestinians already living under the four-decade occupation, similar restrictions on foreigners first came to light in September when Israel began issuing visas that permit travel only in PA-controlled areas.
Israel, meanwhile, has sought to reassure Palestinian Christian leaders that it would facilitate the movement of congregants and tourists as Christmas approaches. Security authorities recently invited the leaders of local churches to a meeting on a military base, where army officials promised to help ease closures, for example, by granting permits for Christians from Gaza to visit Bethlehem for the holiday.
Tens of thousands of foreign-passport holders enter Bethlehem every Christmas to celebrate along with the local Palestinian population, attending mass at the Nativity Church and other annual festivities. Some 60,000 internationals made the pilgrimage in 2008.