Apartheid on Steroids

Apartheid on Steroids

As a Jew who has been an ardent supporter of Israel since its independence, it pains me to record what I saw on a recent trip to the West Bank. But if the occupation continues as such, Israel’s legitimacy and future are at stake.


I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts where my parents headed our local synagogue, Hadassah and the United Jewish Appeal. My first trip abroad after university, in 1962, included a week-long visit to Israel, where I was awed by its accomplishments, as well as by its vulnerability. After the Six-Day War in 1967, I basked in the courage and military prowess of my fellow Jews. The eloquence of foreign minister Abba Eban, defending his beleaguered country at the United Nations, still fills me with pride. In the years since, I’ve been a contributor and fundraiser for the UJA-Federation of New York, a governor of the American Jewish Committee, which is dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, and a founding director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. I’ve made five additional visits to Israel since 1962, the last this summer as part of a humanitarian aid trip to East Jerusalem and the West Bank. As a Jew who has been an ardent supporter of Israel since its independence, it pains me to record what I saw there. But it is my love for Israel and for the Jewish people that drives me to speak out at this treacherous time.

What I witnessed in the West Bank—home to about 2.5 million Palestinians and 400,000 Israeli settlers—exceeded my worst expectations. While the world’s statesmen have dithered, Israel has created a system of apartheid on steroids, a horrifying prison with concrete walls as high as twenty-six feet, topped with body-ravaging coils of razor wire. Spaced along these walls are imposing guard towers that harbor bunkers from which trespassers can be shot by Israeli soldiers. From this physical segregation—one land for Israelis; another, unequal land for Palestinians—flows a torrent of misery, violence and human rights abuses. The West Bank suffers from acute shortages of water, housing, jobs and healthcare. Palestinian children are separated from their parents, denied access to hospitals and stoned and beaten by Jewish settlers. Human rights sanctioned by international law, including the right to health, the prohibition on transferring populations into occupied territories and equal treatment before the law are routinely violated.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, once said that Israel will be judged by how it treats the Arabs. This is a moral test Israel now resoundingly fails—a failure that threatens to undermine all of its accomplishments and, as is increasingly clear, its future.

* * *

The wall that Israel is building does not follow the post-1967 border. It makes major incursions into the West Bank, the largest about fourteen kilometers deep. Circuitous, twice times as long as the actual border, the wall snakes through the West Bank to envelop Jewish settlements and military bases, dividing Arab towns and families from each other. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) counts 505 checkpoints, roadblocks and other obstacles in the West Bank that prevent and impede movement.

This hulking, omnipresent physical constraint makes life for the Arab population a hellish nightmare. Travel outside many villages is allowed only with a permit from the Israeli army (IDF). Receiving a permit often takes months; sometimes permits don’t arrive at all (the IDF does not give explanations); when they do, they expire quickly. For security reasons, permits are usually denied men aged 15-30. Families are separated for years by these restrictions. A married couple—one partner from East Jerusalem, the other from Ramallah—may not be able to live together, and acquiring permits for visitation is an onerous process. Children—who account for almost half of the West Bank’s Palestinian population—are often separated from parents, indefinitely so.

Since many Palestinians are not allowed to travel to the nearest hospital without a permit, they are frequently cut off from medical treatment. Stories abound of people dying in ambulances, waiting to cross an Israeli checkpoint. Women in labor sometimes walk miles to a checkpoint, attempting to reach a hospital on the other side—it’s evidently quicker to cross on foot than in a vehicle. Worse yet, many of these mothers receive no pre- or postnatal care. Travel permits can expire before scheduled medical treatments are finished, and parents are often denied permission to accompany their young children to medical treatment centers.

Almost half of all specialty care patients in the West Bank are now referred to six East Jerusalem hospitals, which have become very difficult to reach. Even with a permit, many patients needing emergency care, including sick children, wait over two hours at checkpoints. Except for doctors, hospital staff must use one of three designated checkpoints and cross on foot, before taking public transportation to their hospital. These restrictions, which apply to medical students as well, cause chronic lateness, immense difficulty in recruiting staff and lower quality healthcare. As a result, in 2004, the International Court of Justice concluded that Israel’s permitting regime violates the right to health of the Palestinian population.

The occupation also makes agriculture an ordeal. Areas between the wall and the 1967 border (the green line) are designated seam areas; Arabs need special permits even to farm their land in these designated spaces. Permits have been declining, and the number of gates into the seam zones has been sharply reduced, placing farmers even further from their land. In response, many farmers have just given up on applying for permits at all.

Izbat Salman, a small Arab village in the Qalqiliya region, has much of its agricultural land behind the barrier wall in the seam zone. A 2003 UNDP report documenting the impact of the security wall there found that 70 percent of permit applications for visitors had been denied and that farmers must travel 14 kilometers to the nearest agricultural gate, which closes at 4 pm and on Israeli holidays. Farmers used to tend their fields after normal work hours, but that became impossible, and they experienced difficulty importing routine farm tools and equipment. According to the 2003 report, lemon and orange tree yields dropped by two-thirds since the barrier was erected. If security were the only issue, the wall would essentially track the current border. But the fact that the wall’s path places so much of the means of life—food production and access to medicine—outside the reach of Arabs suggests that it has been drawn to eviscerate the West Bank’s Arab society.

* * *

On the other side of the wall are the settlements, a misnomer really. In fact, many of them are small towns with modern housing, shopping centers and other amenities. Formally endorsed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977, settlements took off vigorously. Zoning restrictions were relaxed so that Israelis could build detached houses on large parcels of land, at low cost, while retaining their places of employment in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Restricted roads were built so that Israelis could avoid trips through Arab villages. Expansion continued even under the pro-peace governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. Ariel Sharon’s administration went further, allowing illegal outposts not authorized by the government. Most importantly, in all these years, the rational for settlements was the creation of a de facto situation on the ground making reunification of Judea and Samaria beyond difficult. Security became a justification after the second intifada, with its horrific violence and suicide bombings. This was clearly a factor, but the barrier also constituted an increased land grab by the Israelis. Today, although they constitute almost 100 percent of the non-settler population, Arabs have rights on only 35 percent of the land on the West Bank.

The West Bank settler population has grown each year from 140,000 in 1996 to about 400,000 today. By vastly building up the settlements, Israel ostensibly improved its position in any peace negotiation. Ironically, the settlements may now make any peace impossible because the settlers have amassed great political power. Netanyahu actually won fewer seats in the Knesset in the 2009 election than Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party. Only by forging a coalition of right-wing parties that included settlers and their supporters could Netanyahu form a government. For this victory, he has paid a price: any move that upsets the settlers could easily bring down Likud’s fragile majority. Thus, Netanyahu may be powerless to control the deluge in the West Bank, or to propose any viable plan for peace.

East Jerusalem, the presumed capitol of Palestine, has also been devastated by the barrier wall and Israeli settlements. In 2002, following tragic suicide bombings, the Israeli government approved construction of a wall to prevent suicide bombers from the West Bank from entering Israel—quite a reasonable objective. But why does the portion running through Jerusalem measure 142 kilometers, with only four kilometers running along the green line? Besides added security, the wall has redrawn the boundaries of the city. Over one third of East Jerusalem has been expropriated for construction of settlements, despite the illegality of transferring civilians to the occupied territory. Just 13 percent of East Jerusalem land is zoned for Palestinian construction, and permits are virtually unobtainable. Green areas and unplanned areas comprise another 50 percent of the land. De facto, the Palestinians have been expelled from East Jerusalem. Most were never citizens but permanent residents whose status was revocable and not transferable to spouses and children.

Hebron is the West Bank in miniature, and it is well worth examining. We toured Hebron with the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), a civilian observer mission called for by both the Israelis and Palestinians. It monitors breaches of agreements and human rights, but its reports are confidential. The TIPH staff told us that they rarely get any reply to their reports, rendering the mission somewhat irrelevant. They do, however, have an acute sense of what is happening in Hebron.

Walking through Hebron, the largest town in the West Bank, we witnessed grievous and malicious violations of human rights. The main settlement sits above the old Arab market. Settlers throw huge rocks and garbage down on the market causing serious injury and disruption. In defense, the Arabs have erected a large net above their market to protect them. Now, the settlers throw Molotov cocktails that burn through the rope nets. We spoke with an Arab father whose 12-year-old son was recently blinded by a container of acid tossed from above. Children are stoned and beaten going to school, and Arab fields are torched when the settlers are angry, often at some policy of the Israeli government. If the government disappoints the settlers, the Palestinians pay the price. Many Palestinian shops have been shuttered by Israeli security, and 1,800 families have lost their income as a result. For the benefit of 800 Jews living in Hebron, life for 170,000 Palestinians living in the city center has come to a standstill. Most sickening of all, in a settlement called Kiryat Arba, the Jews have built a monument to Dr. Baruch Goldstein. In 1994, Goldstein stormed the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing twenty-nine praying Muslims. Small wonder that the TIPH believes that if the IDF were to exit Hebron, without question, the Jews would be massacred.

We asked the TIPH what the IDF does to stop crimes against the Arabs. They responded that the army views their mission as only protecting the settlers. Any action to contain these felons would be blocked by the government’s right wing. As we were hearing this appraisal, we saw about twenty IDF soldiers hassling a young Arab kid for walking on a street reserved only for Jews. For that he could be arrested, but blinding an Arab boy is not investigated.

How can Jews, who have been persecuted for centuries, tolerate this inhumanity? Where is their moral compass? How can this situation be acceptable to Judaism’s spiritual and political leaders? I don’t have that answer; except to say that Israel’s biggest enemy has become itself.

* * *

The Arab Spring should make it abundantly clear that the Jewish state is on the wrong side of history. When, exactly, the tipping point will come is not predictable. But when that point arrives, it will bring tremendous risks for Israel, and for almost half the Jews in the world who reside there. That Israel has the upper hand now portends nothing about the future. A small state of 7 million holding 4 million neighbors in prison, without opportunity, sufficient medical care, food, water and equal justice is not a sustainable situation. When, eventually, stasis gives way to unimaginable change, it will be too late to alter course. Israel, “right or wrong,” a position taken by many, will lead to a catastrophe. It represents a suspension of critical thought; characteristic of many radical ideologies. Friends of Israel would serve it better to know the true facts and then drive Israel toward a moral and practical solution.

What’s fair? There was a Kingdom of Israel near the time of Christ’s birth. Attacks by Romans, Syrians and others drove the Jews into a 2,000 year diasporic migration. During that long interval they were consistently persecuted, culminating in the Holocaust. Six million European Jews were exterminated in history’s worst genocide. Arab farmers eventually began living in the area that had been the Kingdom of Israel and have done so for hundreds of years. In the nineteenth century, Jews began to return as Zionist fervor and anti-Semitic persecution ignited immigration, later helped mightily by the Balfour declaration. The two groups fought constantly, for land, power and their perceived patrimony. Ending the British mandate over Palestine, the United Nations partitioned the land in 1947. Not acceding to the partition, the Arabs went to war. In the armistice, the Arabs were the losers, but they tried again in 1967 and 1973, losing even more territory.

Many Israelis and their leaders harbored the illusion that one day they could control all the land, certainly after their awesome victory in 1967. Pampered by the West, notably the United States, these unrealistic hopes were nourished. No doubt many Palestinians were equally unrealistic about what they could achieve. A big problem here is that there’s not much to divide. Like in a divorce where the marital estate is rather small, both spouses will likely be disappointed with their share. In this case, each side could blame their ancestors for not settling in a bigger and richer land.

With respect to fairness, the Israelis have done very well. Before the 1947 partition, the Jewish community owned only 6 percent of the land and comprised 35 percent of the population. The UN partition awarded them 55 percent of the land. The Palestinians, who had owned 94 percent of the land, were awarded 45 percent in the partition; Jerusalem was to be put under international supervision. After the 1948 war, however, the armistice line allocated Israel 78 percent of the land. Now many in the international community are advocating a return to those borders (with some land swaps) as a pillar of a peace agreement. Israel should be rejoicing under these terms, since they would receive 78 percent of the land available in 1947. An investment banker much of my adult life, I’d take this deal in a heartbeat.

Personally, I don’t believe the Netanyahu government is able to make peace and survive; the dependence on the radical right wing is too great. The issues in resettling about 150,000 settlers are intractable for the hard-line rightists. Some of Israel’s reservations seem hollow. Netanyahu said a divided Palestine government was an impossible partner in peace. Recently, when a unity government was proposed, he said he wouldn’t deal with Hamas.

The Hamas positions, in fact, resemble the PLO stance prior to the Oslo Accords. The Fatah/Hamas equation is difficult to gauge, but you can’t resolve the matter without talking and without preconditions. Like the PLO, Hamas appears violent and incorrigible. But Israel should remember the expression: “You don’t make peace with your friends.”

I believe the UN should recognize both a Palestinian state and a Jewish state, based largely on the pre-1967 borders. President Obama should lead this effort. This will legitimize both states, and put pressure on them to make peace. Economic levers should be applied, with both rewards and punishments. Settlements must be halted for talks to succeed, and steps should be taken to improve life in the occupied territories. Israel must regain the moral imperative, to disarm its enemies and secure its friends. Many believe there is an international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state. At this point Israel is delegitimizing itself.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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