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BOOKS: Israel, the occupation and "apartheid."
 
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March 1, 2002
Land and Freedom
Israel, the occupation and “apartheid.”
Tank in Israel facing civilian.
Not exactly an equal match.

Those of us who witnessed the old South African system of white supremacy first-hand wince when we hear the word “apartheid” applied too casually elsewhere. Apartheid was defined by the United Nations as a crime against humanity, and it is not a term to be used carelessly. So when a new book appears subtitled Resisting Israel’s Apartheid, a respectful caution is in order.

This up-to-date survey is an impressive collection of 20 articles, edited with skill by The Nation’s Roane Carey, with contributions by Palestinians, Israelis and others, ranging from eyewitness accounts of the latest phase of the conflict to original political and economic analysis. The tone throughout is calm, sober and understanding. The book contains facts and perspectives that are largely ignored by the mainstream American press, which has been astonishing in its one-sidedness. But, in the end, does the book substantiate its subtitle—that Israeli rule over the Palestinian people is a kind of apartheid?

One good place to start is with simple geography. Edward Said, the renowned Palestinian intellectual and activist who has two contributions in The New Intifada, points out that “misrepresentation has made it almost impossible for the American public to understand the geographical basis of the events, in this, the most geographical of contests.”

First, there is “Israel,” a single nation that covers 78 percent of the original British mandate territory. Then there is “Palestine,” a nation-in-waiting in two parts, Gaza and the West Bank, that constitutes the remaining 22 percent. Israeli troops have occupied Palestine since the 1967 Six Day War. Even though hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are refugees or the descendants of refugees from “Israel,” most Palestinians recognize Israel and will settle for their own state in that 22 percent.

But now it gets more complicated. Over the past 20 years or so, about 200,000 Israelis, with the military and political support of the Israeli government, have moved into Palestine, confiscated land and made permanent homes there. Several contributors point out that these big enclaves are violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which “prohibits the occupying power from making permanent changes to the occupied territory or from settling part of its population there.” No country in the world, not even the United States, recognizes the legitimacy of this mass movement of Israelis.

Here is where the language of euphemism gets interesting. The mainstream U.S. press uniformly locates these Israeli enclaves in the neutral-sounding “West Bank” and “Gaza.” The courageous Israeli human rights organization B’tselem insists on a more accurate name: the Occupied Territories of Palestine. What’s more, the illegal enclaves are always called “settlements,” a word that conjures up an image of small, beleaguered outposts, huddling in the stony biblical landscape, peopled by simple pioneers.

It comes as quite a shock, therefore, when you travel just southeast of Jerusalem on the road to Bethlehem and run into Har Homa, a 10-story fortified complex under construction that will house 32,500 Israelis. Har Homa is not alone; since Yasser Arafat, Yitzak Rabin and Bill Clinton came together on the White House lawn in September 1993 to approve the Oslo accords that were supposed to bring a lasting peace, the number of Israeli settlers has risen from 116,000 to 200,000. The Palestinian people heard about a peace process, but what they actually saw was more and more colonists taking over their land.

One look at the useful maps in this book makes it clear why the Israeli offer at Camp David in July 2000 was not the generous concession that has been portrayed in the United States. Israel still planned to annex most of the enclaves outright, and also maintain control over Palestinian border areas and corridors. The state of Palestine, already split into two parts, would lose even more territory and be fragmented into a patchwork quilt of multiple chunks, pieces and strips.

Anyone who knew apartheid South Africa would look at these speckled maps with recognition. The most photogenic features of the South African system were called “petty” apartheid: the segregated restaurants, railway carriages, beaches and public toilets, with their ugly signs. But “grand” apartheid was actually much more important: the territorial segregation of the country into “white” areas, 87 percent of the country that included the big cities and the best farmland, and “black” areas—fragmented chunks called Bantustans. This horseshoe-shaped archipelago of misery around the nation’s rim constituted just 13 percent of the land area, and was the only place where blacks had the permanent right to live and own land.

But you did see plenty of black people, millions of them, working and living, often under terrible conditions, in “white” South Africa. They were there as “temporary sojourners,” migrant workers who built the South African economy into the most powerful in Africa but could be ejected to the impoverished, overcrowded Bantustans at any time.

This is where the comparison with Israel and Palestine becomes more arguable. One of the most important contributions to The New Intifada is the survey of the Palestinian economy by a tireless researcher at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies named Sara Roy. You wonder why someone like this remarkable woman, who has spent years studying Palestine, is not a regular guest on Meet the Press, instead of the same talking heads, most of whom sound like they have never set foot in a Palestinian refugee camp.

Until 1967, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were not allowed into Israel. (About one-fifth of the citizens of Israel proper are Palestinian; their experience as second-class citizens since Israel was founded in 1948 is another part of the story, which is also well covered in this book.) But after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, as much as 40 percent of the total Palestinian work force started crossing into Israel as migrant workers. They, like their counterparts in South Africa, worked mainly in relatively low-paid and dirty jobs that Israelis themselves were increasingly hesitant to take.

Palestine became dependent on the earnings of these migrant workers. Then, starting in the early ’90s, Israel started to apply its “closure” policy, sharply restricting the movement of Palestinian working people into Israel (and within Palestine itself). Roy points out that Palestinian unemployment rose from 3 percent in 1992 to 28 percent in 1996; per capita income fell 37 percent; and “poverty, especially among children, is now visible in a manner not seen for at least twenty-five years.”

Israel justifies closure as a security measure, although Roy points out that “the Israeli security establishment itself has stated that closure is of limited value against extremist attacks.” She, along with most Palestinians, contends that its main function is really “as a form of collective punishment against the Palestinian people.”

We do occasionally read mainstream press accounts of how Israeli military checkpoints inside the Occupied Territories are a delay and inconvenience to people there, although the impact is greater when you see for yourself teen-age Israeli soldiers deciding whether Palestinian grandfathers can pass though to visit the 1,400-year-old Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem—while Israelis whiz along nearby on special Israeli-only bypass roads.

But closure is more than the indignity of having soldiers speaking another language deciding where you can go in your own country. It is economic warfare, and Roy reports that “hunger is now a fact of life for the majority of people, as is the despair and rage that attend it.” This harsh economic reality, based on territorial segregation, migrant labor and by far the longest military occupation in the world today, is nearly ignored by the mainstream American press.

So is this “apartheid”? One danger is that the word will alienate people who sympathize with Israel but will listen to criticism provided they do not perceive it as inflammatory. The U.N. General Assembly’s vote back in 1975 that “Zionism is a form of racism” may have made a settlement even harder to reach, by weakening the peace camp within Israel and among its supporters elsewhere.

Yet certain Israelis themselves are not so squeamish. Edward Said points out one of the facts that surprises first-time visitors to Israel: You find a much broader range of opinion in some of the big Israeli newspapers than you will ever see in the United States. Meron Benvenisti, an impassioned critic of Israeli policy who appears regularly in Ha’aretz (the local equivalent of the New York Times, available in an English-language edition), regularly uses the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s policy in the Occupied Territories.

In the end, describing Israel and Palestine accurately probably matters more than the particular word you choose to sum up the situation. The New Intifada demonstrates calmly and convincingly that the harsh Israeli occupation—political, military and economic—is the cause of the present uprising, not something irrational or hateful in the Arab or Muslim character. So if the word “apartheid” shocks open-minded people into taking a closer look, it may be justified.

James North lived in southern Africa from 1978 to 1983, reporting for In These Times and other publications. He visited Israel and Palestine for the first time last year. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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