TEL AVIV — A controversial plan to segregate Palestinians from riding the same buses as Israeli settlers in the West Bank was scrapped within hours of the plans being made public Wednesday, officials said.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon "agreed to suspend the pilot program" after a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a defense ministry spokesman told NBC News.
"The separation of buses exposes the Israeli occupation at its highest ugliness."'
The U-turn came after an outcry from lawmakers and rights groups, some of whom alleged the program amounted to an apartheid-style policy.
Yaalon launched the three-month pilot program following repeated complaints from Jewish settlers who ride on the buses, The Associated Press reported. Some Jewish settlers allege the Palestinian workers constitute a security threat and frequently engage in sexual harassment of female Jewish riders.
The new edict would have required Palestinian laborers entering Israel each day for work to return to the West Bank through the same checkpoint, and not travel alongside Israelis, according to the AP.
Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition in Israel's parliament, said on his Facebook page Wednesday that the "separation between Palestinians and Jews in public transport is unnecessary humiliation and a stain on the faces of the state and its citizens."
He said the proposed policy was "like adding oil to a fire of hatred of Israel in the world."
Dr. Hannan Ashrawi, executive committee member for the Palestine Liberation Organization, told NBC News on Wednesday that the plan was "absolutely disgraceful and shameful."
She said: "Israel is proving it is an apartheid state, with racism and discrimination in the parcel of discrimination policy." Ashrawi added the country was "acting like a colonial settler state, and it's time it is held accountable."
Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Israeli non-governmental organization Peace Now, said: "The separation of buses exposes the Israeli occupation at its highest ugliness."
He said that at a time when the U.S. was marking the decades-old struggle against bus segregation, "here in Israel we are going back to dark times of apartheid on buses."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.