Israel’s Public Transportation Policy Throws Arab Communities Under the Bus

Public transport is a fundamental condition for growth and development – especially in struggling communities. For decades, the State of Israel and the Transportation Ministry have ignored the needs of Arab communities. Some of them have no internal public transport and, in others, buses go around the town. What about a train station in an Arab city? Maybe in 15 years from now. The ministry’s response: Developing infrastructure is a top priority

Public transport is a fundamental condition for growth and development – especially in struggling communities. For decades, the State of Israel and the Transportation Ministry have ignored the needs of Arab communities. Some of them have no internal public transport and, in others, buses go around the town. What about a train station in an Arab city? Maybe in 15 years from now. The ministry’s response: Developing infrastructure is a top priority

Public transport is a fundamental condition for growth and development – especially in struggling communities. For decades, the State of Israel and the Transportation Ministry have ignored the needs of Arab communities. Some of them have no internal public transport and, in others, buses go around the town. What about a train station in an Arab city? Maybe in 15 years from now. The ministry’s response: Developing infrastructure is a top priority

Fadi Amun

City of Taibeh, Israel Train up north, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and a bus station in Yasif. Photos: Fadi Amun, Shutterstock, Adina Valman - The Knesset

July 25, 2022

Summary

L

ast month, the city of Taibeh got its first internal bus route. Absurd as it might sound, before June 2022, the city – which has a population of 45,000 – had only one bus stop, located at the entrance to the city on a major intercity highway. The only buses to stop there were traveling between cities. Imagine a Jewish town the size of Karmiel, Ramat Hasharon or Nes Tziona, which have similar populations, surviving without internal bus routes. If that sounds strange or unusual, adjust your expectations. This is the norm for Israel’s Arab community – which makes up 21 percent of the total population.

There is no argument that efficient public transport is a precondition for economic growth, development, and narrowing socioeconomic gaps – something that should be near the top of the national agenda. So how is it possible that Israel provides no bus services to major Arab towns and that, of the 69 train stations in the country, not a single one is located in an Arab town? Shomrim investigated four test cases.

1.

The Karmiel-Haifa route

The train doesn’t stop in Arab communities

The railway station in Karmiel opened some five years ago, and it is now the northernmost station in Israel. Just one station has been built between Karmiel and Kiryat Motzkin, and it is located adjacent to moshav Ahihud, which has a population of just a few hundred families. Just 4 kilometers to the west of Ahihud is Yasif Junction, through which residents of Jadeidi-Makr (20,000 residents), Yasif (10,000 residents), and Yarka (18,000 residents) all travel. These communities make up a much larger population center – one which, according to figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, is in the lowest socio-economic segment. Why is the government not making any effort to ensure that new railway lines run close to this cluster of communities? Or, at the very least, to ensure that there is a frequent bus service between these towns and villages and the nearest train station?

“As part of the statutory process for the railway, the locations of the stations are closely examined in an ordered and detailed process, which includes working visits to the field and meetings with all the relevant authorities and local councils. The railway stations are planned to be adjacent to existing or proposed land usage, with the aim of bringing them closer to population centers and urban and regional employment zones,” the Transportation Ministry said in response.

Prof. Rassem Khamaisi is an urban planner, geographer, and lecturer in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Haifa. He is unconvinced by the ministry’s response. “Unfortunately, Arab communities are invisible to the Israeli transportation planning authorities. Less than 3 percent of the officials are Arabs,” he says. “Railway stations are a catalyst for development and the construction of urban settlements. In Europe and elsewhere, wherever there are railway stations, there has been urban expansion. To my very great regret, part of the approach thus far has been to build industrial zones in Jewish communities to help them grow. This merely perpetuates the dependence of Arab communities on Jewish communities. The planning authorities have to view Arab communities as an integral part of the national infrastructure; they have to create the opportunity for development, thereby improving the socio-economic standing of the Arab communities.”

Railway, North of Israel. Photo: Fadi Amun
Just one station has been built between Karmiel and Kiryat Motzkin, and it is located adjacent to moshav Ahihud, which has a population of just a few hundred families, through which residents of Jadeidi-Makr (20,000 residents), Yasif (10,000 residents), and Yarka (18,000 residents) all travel
2.

The Kiryat Shmona-Karmiel Line

64,000 forgotten residents

A planned section of track, which will become the northernmost in the country, will run between Kiryat Shmona and Karmiel. According to the approved plan, the section will have three stations, and another two are penciled in as potential future additions – all of them adjacent to Jewish communities: Kiryat Shmona, Lake Hula, Hatzor Haglilit, Merom Hagalil (serving people visiting the grave of Jewish sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) and East Karmiel, which is also supposed to serve people living in Beit Hakerem Valley.

Why do the plans not include a station along the long stretch of track between Amiad Junction and Karmiel, at a location that could easily have served residents of the communities of Maghar, Eilabun, and Arraba and Rama, with a combined population of some 64,000?

“Part of the professional considerations when planning a railway is looking into supply and demand, geographical locations, accessibility to vehicles, economic viability, and so on,” says Anan Maalouf, the director of the Public Transport Development Division in the Localities of Arab Society for the Ministry of Transport. “For Arab communities in the area, we will build the East Karmiel station (…). We are looking at the region as an overall space. We believe that the Karmiel station will provide a solution for all residents of the area. As far Maghar and Eilabun are concerned, we will see whether there have been feasibility studies.”

Israel Railways’ strategic plan for 2040 includes 1,300 kilometers of new train tracks and 52 new stations. How many of them will serve Arab communities?

“I don’t have an answer off the top of my head,” says Maalouf. “Not every station in an Arab community provides a solution for Arabs, and not every station in a Jewish community provides a solution just for Jews. Public transport services are not localized, and any analysis of the existing situation, in many cases, depends on the situation in past years.”

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli. Photo: Dani Sham Tov - The Knesset
A planned section of track, which will become the northernmost in the country, will run between Kiryat Shmona and Karmiel. According to the approved plan, the section will have three stations, and another two are penciled in as potential future additions – all of them adjacent to Jewish communities
3.

The Eastern Railway

One day, there’ll be a train station in an Arab town

The New Eastern Railway is one of Israel’s strategic transportation projects. Like the Trans-Israel Highway some 20 years ago, the idea is to create another link between the north of Israel and the south – without passing through the congestion of Gush Dan – and to provide an alternative to the overcrowded railway network that runs along Israel’s Mediterranean coast and to the bottleneck on the Ayalon Freeway that runs through Tel Aviv.

The New Eastern Railway is a national project on a massive scale, with a budget of around 10 billion shekels. As is always the case with significant transportation projects, the completion date has been postponed repeatedly, but work has already begun on the project itself. The line will have six new stations, two of which – for the first time in Israeli history – will be Arab cities: the Taibeh station will also serve passengers from Samaria and Qalansawe, while the Tira station will also serve Kochav Yair.

Railway tracks are usually laid parallel to major intercity highways, where the topography is as amenable and flat as possible. So, these new stations will not be built inside the cities themselves; rather, they will serve population centers, and passengers will travel to the stations in private vehicles or buses.

North of Taibeh, following the route of the Trans-Israel Highway, is Baka al-Garbiyeh, a city of 30,000 people. However, the northern section of the new railway only comes close to reaching them. Instead, a station was planned elsewhere: next to Ahituv, a moshav south of Hadera. That station would also serve residents of Hefer Valley. A station near Ahituv could have provided something of a solution for residents of Baka al-Garbiyeh, but it was recently announced that the plan had been scrapped for budgetary reasons. Residents of Hefer Valley are trying to reverse the decision so far without success.

The Transportation Ministry explained that there are long-term plans to link Baka al-Garbiyeh to the rail network as part of a separate line currently in the process of preliminary, statutory planning. In the meantime, Baka al-Garbiyeh and Hefer Valley residents will continue to wait for the train.

Photo: Fadi Amun
Prof. Rassem Khamaisi: "Railway stations are a catalyst for development and the construction of urban settlements. In Europe and elsewhere, wherever there are railway stations, there has been urban expansion"
4.

When buses bypass towns

An examination of the bus service that Israel provides to its Arab citizens – a service that is a lot easier to plan and adapt than railways – shows that, here, too, there is a massive gulf in terms of planning policy and funding.

Mayor Mansour: “We have seen full use of the first bus route in the city, but this is just the first step since it is not accessible for many of the city’s neighborhoods"

Taibeh Mayor Shuaa Massarweh Mansour. Personal Photo

Just a few weeks ago, Taibeh mayor Shuaa Massarweh Mansour and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli launched the first bus route to operate within the city. The route makes a lap around most of the area of the town. In other words: it travels around the city but does not enter the center of it (see map). For anyone hoping to use public transport to get around Taibeh, the route offers at best a partial solution. In nearby Qalansawe, there is also one route, which also bypasses the city center – albeit taking a more central route.

“There’s no question that efficient public transport would help develop and grow Arab towns and cities. It would create more work opportunities, including in hi-tech,” Mansour told Shomrim. “We have seen full use of the first bus route in the city, but this is just the first step since it is not accessible for many of the city’s neighborhoods. I spoke to Transportation Minister Michaeli about the importance of preparing the infrastructure for a second and third route to cover every part of the city.”

The limited availability of buses – which, in any case, provide only a partial solution – is common in many Arab communities. In this context, it is interesting to compare the bus routes of neighboring communities: Tira (27,000 residents) compared to Kochav Yair (9,000 residents), Tel Sheva (22,000 residents), and Hura (25,000 residents) compared to Omer (7,000 residents). A map of the respective lines appears below.

A map of the night services – an in-demand service that provides transportation solutions for people who work late and at weekends – is not substantially different from the daytime service: Of the 104 night-bus services operating in Israel, only one passes through an Arab town – Nazareth.

“The bigger picture isn’t much better, but we have to start from somewhere,” says Maalouf, who took on his new role at the Transportation Ministry six months ago. “Before 2012, there were no bus services in any Arab community apart from Nazareth. It depends on the size of the population, the infrastructure, the investment, and the budgets earmarked for public transport in Arab communities.

“A decade later, I believe that just one Arab community has an internal bus service. We hope to bring the level of public transport services in Arab communities up to the same level as in the Jewish communities. We invested 500 million shekels over the past five years and, in the next five years, we’ve earmarked an additional 400 million shekels.”

Maalouf also suggests that the difficult terrain in some Arab communities, many of which were not built according to any plan, is partly responsible for the gap in service. In Taibeh, for example, when the new line was being planned, extensive infrastructure work was needed on roads and junctions to allow buses to get through. “We aspire to create a network of public transport services in Arab communities, and we are investing resources and money to improve and upgrade the terrain there. Unfortunately, we are not yet at the stage where we can go to a city and put down rail tracks.”

Bus routes: Taibeh (right) and Qalansawe

Bus routes: Tira (left) and Kokhav Ya'ir Tzur Yigal

Bus routes: Hura (right) and Omer

Transport Ministry: Top priority

The Transportation Ministry sent Shomrim the following response: “Narrowing the gaps in Israeli society is one of the ministry’s top priorities, and we are implementing a strategic transportation plan for the Arab sector. Within this framework, the ministry has invested in many communities where the transportation infrastructure is poor and needs improving.”

The ministry’s response goes on to detail the various steps that have been taken to rectify the situation: Reshet 2025, a strategic plan for developing transport infrastructure in Arab communities; a massive transportation survey conducted in Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian, the goal of which was to share with the public the decision-making process and plans (the results of the survey are still being analyzed); a localized plan for transportation in the Wadi Ara communities and so on. 

It is obvious that narrowing gaps created over decades is a long-term process and that it requires massive investment. There is also no doubt that decision-makers must thoroughly rethink their policies and strategies. This is perfectly encapsulated in the headline that the Transportation Ministry gave to the document in which it responded to Shomrim’s questions: “Ministry response to train stations and buses in Arab villages.” But Shomrim’s questions never mentioned “Arab villages” – a phrase that, in itself, alludes to an outdated view of Arab communities as a collection of houses in an agricultural landscape rather than the bustling towns and cities that are home to one-fifth of the Israeli population. It’s time for Israel to step on the gas.

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.