Monday, September 29, 2008

Apartheid in Palestine, the South African Perspective

When writing about the Israel-Palestine conflict, one must sometimes use words, indeed sometimes a whole language, specific to one side or the other. There are certain entities, ideas, and events that each side has a different word for. The UK Guardian's Seth Freedman wrote about this last month in his piece about al-Aqsa TV.
As the news began rolling once more, all I could concentrate on was the language employed, rather than the stories that were being reported. The abandoning of western media parlance – "Israel", "IDF", "settlers", and so on – in favour of an entirely different lexicon was a rude awakening for me, having been fed on a vastly different diet over the years.
Israelis call their military the IDF- Israel Defense Forces- their country Israel, and the wall separating it from the West Bank the security barrier. Palestinians call these same things, respectively, the Zionist Occupying Forces, Occupied Palestine, and the apartheid wall.

It is this last word that is most inflammatory, especially to Israelis. Most people worldwide recognize apartheid to have been an appalling period of South African history and its abolition a righting of decades worth of wrong. Which is why hearing this word used to describe Israel's policies toward Palestinians is a bitter pill to swallow.

Back in July, I made a visit to Hebron after which I quoted a humanitarian worker I interviewed as saying, "They cannot travel on this road. It’s an apartheid road." Out of all the writing I had done on the subject of the occupation, this one sentence drew the most fire from my Israeli friends. They argued that this word could not be used to describe their situation because it was born in South Africa and, therefore, could only be applied there. They said it was a cheap shot, an attempt to manipulate my readers by using a highly-charged word.

Yesterday I went to a talk called "Apartheid in Palestine: Black Perspective on the Israeli Occupation" hosted by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. The most striking portions of the talk, for me, were the parallel's drawn by South African pastor Reverend Kelvin Sauls between the Israeli occupation and apartheid.

Reverend Sauls had just returned from a visit to Israel and Palestine and said that what he found was that life for Palestinians is even worse than it was for him under apartheid. Sauls, who grew up in Soweto, near Johannesburg, said, "There was never a wall built around Soweto" and cited the sewage running downhill from Israeli settlements into Palestinian vegetable gardens.

In 1948, the same policy took root both in South Africa and in Israel, Sauls says. It began by establishing bantustans, small areas of minority control. Former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, wrote in the UK Guardian back in 2004:
Similarly, when in South Africa a failed attempt was made to solve demographic problems by creating "homelands for the blacks", liberals originally supported the idea, and even a portion of the international community viewed the measure as a step toward "decolonisation". But, after a short time, it became clear that the ploy was designed to confer legitimacy on the expulsion of black people, and their uprooting. The bantustans collapsed, demands for civil equality intensified, and the world mobilised for the defeat of apartheid.

The bantustan model for Gaza, as depicted in the disengagement plan, is a model that Sharon plans to copy on the West Bank.
The US decided that separate was not in fact equal in 1954 with Brown vs Board of Education and segregation here collapsed as well. In relation to American race laws, Reverend Sauls said, "Jim Crow is alive and thriving in the Holy Land" and said that a two state solution would allow Palestine to become a bantustan, which he considers a non-viable entity.

Other similarities Sauls cited were the constant dispossession of land, the passbook system wherein anyone not carrying his or her papers at all times risks imprisonment, identifying people based on race and religion, the constant military presence, and the suggested appropriation of land by Israel.

In the currently discussed two-state solution, the map proposes that 85% of the land of historic Palestine goes to Israel and 15% goes to Palestine. This is the same way land was appropriated in South Africa.

Israelis often have a sense of pride in being what they consider the only democracy in the Middle East. Sauls reminds us that South Africa also thought similarly of itself, even though in both cases this democracy was racially based, a concept Sauls calls "ethnocracy."

Reverend Sauls, a pastor from the United Methodist Church, said about his trip, "My time in Palestine was very, very difficult. I never thought I would see such a manifestation. It was probably the most dehumanizing experience of my life."

However, he was also careful to point out that he supports Israel and believes that Israelis have a right to exist, but not by extinguishing another people. He says, "To do to Israelis what they have done to Palestinians will not make it ok," and says about Palestinians, "Their liberation will facilitate the liberation of all Israelis. You see, whites in South Africa were bamboozled, too."

Reverend Sauls and colleagues Gerald Lenoir and Phil Hutchins emphasized the difficulty in changing what they found in Palestine. Hutchins said, "This is the most difficult issue to talk about in US politics. Anyone criticizing Israel is called anti-Semitic," and added later, "We're going against the tide here." One of the reasons the Israeli occupation has survived much longer than apartheid is that terrorism and persecution have continually served to paint Israel as the victim, beginning with the holocaust and continuing on through Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Hutchins says, "Unlike South Africa, Israel has had the moral high ground since 1948."

For more information on the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) please go here.

1 comment:

Pauline said...

I love how you spell out the semantics at the beginning. This is an excellent piece of writing the explains emotionally and politically charged issues in straight forward, respectful fashion. Thank you.