Israel and Apartheid South Africa: A response to Guardian series on the relationship between the two

Some members of Israeli government even recommend the forcible transfer of the Palestinian population of Israel, contrary to international law (Maureen Clare Murphy)

Last week, The Guardian (UK) published a two-part series by its reporter Chris McGreal comparing Israeli policies vis-a-vis its own Palestinian citizens and those living under its occupation in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip to that of apartheid-era South Africa. The following is a letter to The Guardian editor from a peace activist who has been a part of society and the struggle for human rights in both countries who finds that the questions posed by The Guardian necessary for ensuring a truly secure future.

Dear Sir:

An Israeli citizen since 1981, working full-time as a peace activist, I was a South African permanent resident since the ’60s, and still regularly visit South Africa.

I thank you for publishing Chris McGreal’s major and courageous expose of Israeli “apartheid” policies which undermine prospects for real peace, create fear in all communities, and prevent tolerance and normal life.

[Last week’s] news of Ehud Olmert’s unilateral annexation plans — all settlement blocs, including the Jordan Valley, the mountain aquifer and East Jerusalem - underpins the accuracy of McGreal’s analysis. The “cantons” are being launched on a largely unsuspecting world (including a World Jewry largely in denial) and Israel thus becomes a Police State, governing at a distance a Palestine denied sovereignty, viability, water, free borders, airspace or such niceties as international law or human rights. The Occupation, oh so sophisticated as it is almost as transparent as Palestinians are to Israelis, will continue out of sight of Israel but heavy in the heart of Palestine. Not least, the settlers will continue as Lords of the Land, whose strategic purpose (General Sharon studied at Sandhurst in the ’50s) is to deny Palestine any viability.

Security is the mantra. When will we learn security does not come from the barrel of a gun, it comes from acknowledging our joint humanity? Security may be the excuse for the Wall (BTselem’s report “Under the Guise of Security” proves its true purpose is settlement expansion, whilst our Minister of Justice recently confirmed it as a border), but the suicide bombing campaign of Hamas was sparked explicitly by Baruch Goldstein’s massacre in Hebron of 29 Muslim worshippers praying in the Cave of the Patriarchs’ mosque during Ramadan. Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned 20 years ago that if Israel does not cease its occupation, we shall be breeding Judaeo-Nazis. Prophets are rarely appreciated; his prophecy we see daily coming true, not least in the scenario painted by Prof. Arnon Soffer. Even the rise of Hamas was predictable: when trying to comfort hundreds of people whose homes are demolished annually by Israel, one cannot offer justice in the courts, one cannot offer a friendly parliamentary representative to contact, one cannot offer financial compensation, one cannot offer democratic rights, one cannot offer enlightened Occupation, one cannot offer land rights, a lawyer, or even common sense. One can only point to the sky and repeat the refrain of the persecuted: “God is watching this. He will bring justice.” Thus the birth of fundamentalism, when there is absolutely no other hope.

Working as a critical tour-guide, I show people facts on the ground, so they judge for themselves. For anyone bashing off dismissive missives from his armchair in Hawai, New Jersey, Wisconsin, or Ilford, facts on the ground are irrelevant. For Jewish tourists who go only to the beach, the Wailing Wall or the Malha Mall, the facts on the ground are irrelevant. For those with the guts to go see for themselves, the reality is depressing, ominously scary and criminally immoral. If Israel was born, tragically, in the original sin of 1930s militarism and colonialism, this current direction may be its death knell. For those who care about Israel and the future of all Israelis, morality has to be part of the scenario. Sad to think that Judaism underscores those ethics, whilst corruption is yet the norm. There are over 40 settlements in the Old City. Is the Christian world not worried yet? Increasing rumblings of selective disinvestment are not happening in a vacuum, either …

It’s no coincidence that Prof. Jeff Halper has just been nominated by The Quakers for the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Palestinian Ghassan Andoni, another exponent of non-violence and peace. Only by demilitarising, by learning to live together, by eschewing the racism of exclusivity, by embracing REAL democracy (why would Jewish democracy be preferable to democracy, or Jewish morality be better than morality?), is there a future for this great nation.

Benjamin Pogrund, a friend whom I respect, takes comfort in knowing that hospital care in Israel is - unlike the hospitals of South Africa - not racist. Go tell it to residents of Abu Dis, 60,000 people who no longer have a hospital at all because the Wall has cut them out of Jerusalem and literally split families. Go tell it to scores of women who lost babies at checkpoints. Go tell it to volunteers of Physicians for Human Rights, who refuse to be enemies and go to the Occupied Territories every Saturday, to confirm their Hippocratic Oath. Go tell it to my late father, a white doctor in black hospitals in Durban and East London in S. Africa during apartheid days (“It didn’t happen and it couldn’t happen”? Oh yes it did!).

Education, Benjamin? The case of the indigenous Bedouin tribes in the Negev reveals Israel as an ethnocracy, not a democracy, on every level. Bedouin are harassed more than any other ethnic minority, accused of stealing their own land, forced into criminally building their shacks because the State of Israel refuses permits or zoned housing (except in reservations they eschew as they fear losing traditional lifestyles and claims to their land). Most Bedouin don’t have the vote despite their citizenship because their land rights are not recognised, so they live with no official address. Half the original Bedouin from the Negev are refugees in Gaza, Jordan, the West Bank or elsewhere, forced off their land in the ’50s by “Operation Broom” (don’t believe me? Watch the film “Arna’s Children” in which the Palmach veteran expressed her shame at having swept them off their lands). Many Bedouin have been forced out of the education system, taking refuge in universities in Europe or America. A lucky few manage to attain university degrees in Israel; nevertheless, a US State Department report on Israel states “Arab children make up approximately one-quarter of the public school population, but historically government resources allocated for them were proportionally less than for Jewish children. Current expenditures do not make up for the historic inequities in government investments in educational infrastructure. Many schools in Arab communities are dilapidated and overcrowded, lack special education services and counsellors, have poor libraries, and have no sports facilities.” Human Rights Watch reported that the Israeli “State Comptroller documented this gap in several annual reports in the 1990s. In February 2001, the Israeli government reported that in 1991 the total investment in education per pupil in Arab municipalities was approximately one third of the investment per pupil in Jewish municipalities.”

In the Negev city of Beer Sheva, Bedouin children represent 70 percent of the admissions to childrens’ hospital wards (Arab Israelis are 20 percent of the population), because of their forced Fifth World conditions. In such conditions of poverty and harassment, one clearly sees parallels between Alexandra and Sandton; neighbouring Jewish communities boast the highest standard of living in the whole of Israel. Not racism? So find a better terminology, whilst squirming off the hook. The fact is, it ain’t working! The bog of 18 years in Lebanon may be a paradise in contrast to what is being now proclaimed as our future.

The truth is, we Israelis are tired of war, we’re tired of the never ending cycle of violence, much of which we are responsible for (militarism has an escalating nature), and we desperately need an exit strategy from Occupation, preferably engineered by the outside world (after 38 years, we know we can’t). Because deep down we have, together with the traumas and stresses of centuries, a guilty feeling, many of us, about the crazy cancerous settlement expansion and the grabbing of land and the extrajudicial assassinations and war crimes and refugees and the lies that said there’s no partner for peace, and the deliberate closing off of channels to peace. We’re cynical and wise enough to know people are making fortunes out of arms production, but we’re tired of the funerals and young men coming back traumatized. We’re desperate to go back to more innocent times and to start feeling good about ourselves. To get back to talking to our cousins, in a spirit of win-win and not the military curse of win-lose. To defuse the hellish tension. And to learn to share, in the knowledge deep down that God made all life and real respect for it means learning to respect that sacredness in everything. Otherwise … what’s the point of a religious state without spiritual values?

Angela Godfrey-Goldstein is Action Advocacy Officer for The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, an Israeli peace organisation. In South Africa in the late ’70s she was one of the first white actors to act in Soweto, Alexandra and other townships, with black actors. She has also worked as an environmental activist in South Sinai, Egypt.

Related Links

  • Worlds apart, Chris McGreal, The Guardian (6 February 2006)
  • Brothers in arms - Israel’s secret pact with Pretoria, Chris McGreal, The Guardian (7 February 2006)