What was wrong in apartheid S. Africa is wrong in Palestine

11 December 2008

081211-audeh-boulder.jpg

The reality of the Israeli occupation is willfully ignored in the United States. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)


Try talking in Boulder, Colorado about Israel’s policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and you might think you had stepped into a time warp: a time when “foreigners” and their religion could be trashed with impunity, colonialism was something to be proudly embraced, and apartheid in South Africa still had supporters.

In September, I participated in what was supposed to be a panel discussion following a performance of “My Name is Rachel Corrie.” The play is based on the diaries and emails of 23-year-old Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in March 2003 as she stood to defend a Palestinian home from demolition.

The play describes the conditions facing Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, whose ability to resist their own destruction was steadily and systematically being undermined by Israel. Today, of course, the situation is much worse. Who would have thought that Israel would be able to hermetically seal the Gaza Strip and prevent food, medicine, fuel and electricity from reaching 1.5 million Palestinian residents — impose collective punishment on a civilian population, which is a war crime — for months on end and not face international sanctions?

The panel for the most part ignored the Gaza Strip ghetto altogether, thanks to the intervention of an activist “moderator.” One of the five panelists made extensive, gratuitous and derogatory remarks about Islam. Two Anti-Defamation League (ADL) staff members sat in the audience, but neither felt obliged to publicly denounce as hate speech the trashing of a faith. The relevance of this diatribe to the play is subtle: if the faith of the people that Corrie concerned herself with is defective, then by extension so are they, and their fate is of no concern. We’ve come across this mindset before, and in response to the evils it made possible, the world vowed “never again.” Apparently, however, Palestinians are to be an exception.

Last month, a group I work with, the Middle East Collective of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, located in Boulder, organized a lecture, “Separate is Never Equal,” featuring Palestinian-Canadian lawyer Diana Buttu and South African anti-apartheid activist Reverend Edward Makue.

Buttu gave a well-documented presentation that showed clearly the Bantustans that Israel has carved out of the West Bank. Her presentation included an outline of the consequences of Israeli policies, which has been the immobilization and pauperization by design of the Palestinian people.

For Israel’s die-hard supporters in the audience, the question and answer session was an opportunity to make Israel’s case, not to explore further the content of the presentations. Two expressed support for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians (a war crime); a few seemed enraged by the Israel-apartheid connection but could not refute it credibly, considering that the Israeli government itself calls its policy toward the Palestinians one of separation (which is what “apartheid” means), and Israeli law expressly privileges Jewish citizens over non-Jewish (i.e., Palestinian) citizens.

In fact, Adalah: the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has identified more than 20 laws in Israel that discriminate against Palestinians citizens of Israel by working the Jewish character of the state into the text of the law. The Law of Return (1950) and the Citizenship Law (1952) gives Jews around the world the right to emigrate to Israel and to claim instant political and national rights. This gives more rights to those who have never set foot in the country while Palestinian refugees who were born there but were forced out with the establishment of the Jewish state or are their descendants are denied their right to return, a right upheld by numerous United Nations resolutions. The State of Israel is one where one group has supreme rights over another and “public good” is defined in ethno-religious terms; lands expropriated from Palestinians for the “public good” benefit Jewish citizens only.

South African anti-apartheid activists have been forthright about the many ways in which Israeli apartheid is worse than the form they struggled against. Some of the examples they cite are the requirements that Palestinians carry identification cards at all times when traveling from city to city and that they secure very difficult-to-obtain permits to do so; Israel disproportionately allocates 85 percent of water resources in Palestine to Israelis and the remaining 15 percent is divided among all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. And then there’s the separate road system in the West Bank; one for Jews and another for non-Jews.

Many in the audience chose to ignore the evidence in the presentations and raise the bogus issue of Israel’s security, in the name of which apparently everything is permissible. In fact, it is population control, rather than security, that dictates the monstrous wall that denies farmers access to their farmlands, separates Palestinian villages from each other, and blocks view of the sunset in Qalqiliya; residence laws that require Palestinians from different parts of the West Bank to get official permission, never granted, before they can live together legally as husband and wife; and the deliberately engineered destitution of the Gaza Strip. Even the use of the suicide bomber as boogeyman to justify Israel’s policies is pretty unconvincing. The Israeli army, navy, air force and freelance sharpshooters collectively kill four times as many Palestinian adults and eight times as many Palestinian children as the number of Israeli adults and children killed by Palestinian suicide bombers. In light of the body count, the focus on the low-tech means used by the suicide bomber as somehow more reprehensible than the high-tech means at the disposal of Israel is telling: only Jewish civilian deaths matter, it seems. A principled concern with civilian deaths would pose the question: what can be done to make Palestinian and Israeli civilians off limits?

Reverend Makue expressed dismay that sentiments expressed by the audience reminded him of the kind of discourse one heard in South Africa before liberation, a discourse that was blind to the many ways in which apartheid oppressed society as a whole. He reminded the audience that after liberation, no one in South Africa would admit to supporting a system finally understood to be brutal and brutalizing. In the US, we too must move beyond a futile discourse that celebrates unrestrained force to subordinate a people and deny them a future with dignity. The day will come when Israel’s cheerleaders in this country will be asked to explain why they supported the pounding and starving of a people into submission, how they could ever have thought that discriminating against a nation on the basis of religion and ethnicity is somehow more rational and less appalling than discrimination on the basis of skin color.

Ida Audeh is a Palestinian from the West Bank who works as a technical editor in Boulder, Colorado. Her op-eds and articles have been published by the Rocky Mountain News, The Daily Camera, The Electronic Intifada, Countercurrents, and Counterpunch. She can be reached at idaaudeh A T yahoo D O T com. A shorter version of this essay was originally published by the Rocky Mountain News and is republished with the author’s permission.