The Israeli government has suspended a proposed ban on Palestinians travelling on the same buses as Israelis in the occupied West Bank, 24 hours after its implementation began.
The ban was introduced by Israel’s defence minister, but provoked outrage from figures in the Israeli opposition as well as from within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own party.
What was supposed to be a three-month trial would have prevented Palestinians who commute to Israel for work from using the public transport available to Israelis living in West Bank settlements.
Opposition figures in Israel had slammed the system as resembling “apartheid”.
As criticism mounted on Wednesday morning, an official from Mr Netanyahu’s office announced the plan was to be put on hold.
“The proposal is unacceptable to the prime minister. He spoke with the defence minister this morning and it was decided that the proposal will be frozen,” the official told the AP news agency.
Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon had openly backed the segregation policy, telling Israel Public Radio it would allow for “better control of the Palestinians and those leaving Israel, and reduce security risks”.
Oren Hazan, a new member of parliament for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party took to social media to welcome the announcement, describing it as “our first great achievement in the Knesset [Israeli Parliament]…after a long struggle we are on our way to restoring security to public transport”.
“Apartheid is, by definition, the separation between two citizens of the same state not getting equal rights, the Palestinians are not Israeli citizens,” Mr Hazan added.
Israel’s settler community has called for a separation programme to be introduced on public transport for many years.
An estimated half a million Jews live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, built since Israel’s occupation of the territory in 1967.
But opposition figures were quick to attack the programme.
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, who had hoped to replace Mr Netanyahu as prime minister in the recent general election, said in a Facebook post that the plan amounted to “warrantless humiliation” and was a “stain on the country and its citizens” that would increase “hatred toward Israel around the world”.
The leader of the left-wing Meretz party, Zehava Galon, said Israel’s Defence Ministry “gave in to pressure exerted by Jewish settlers, who complained over the large number of Palestinians on the buses…This is what apartheid looks like”.
According to the Haaretz newspaper, Gideon Saar, a former Interior Minister from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party had also added his voice to the criticism, saying the ban should be scrapped to “minimise the grave damage to Israel and to the settlements”.
It comes as the UN’s new Middle East Envoy, Nikolay Mladenov, called upon Israel to freeze construction in the settlements and take more steps to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.