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The Evil That Dare Not Speak Its Name: Israel’s Apartheid

Posted on Jun 14, 2015

By Sandy Tolan

    Palestinian workers wait to cross at the Israeli checkpoint in Jalameh, south of the West Bank city of Jenin, on their way to work in Israel. (Mohammed Ballas / AP)

For years the “A-word” has been off-limits in polite conversation about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The A-word, we have been told, unfairly singles out the Jewish state and its use is perhaps even anti-Semitic. Such declarations can have a powerful silencing effect.

However, in 2002 Archbishop Desmond Tutu broke the taboo, writing in the British newspaper The Guardian that “the humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks” reminded him “of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

Four years later Jimmy Carter committed a similar indelicacy with the very title of his bestseller, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” A wave of condemnation of the former president followed. “He appears to be giving aid and comfort to the new anti-Semites,” wrote a reviewer for the Jewish Virtual Library.

For the most part, in the mainstream U.S. press at least, the decorum that forbids use of the A-word remains in place. Yet increasingly, as Israel continues to colonize the West Bank with settlers, and its army ensures their dominion over the lands they occupy, adhering to the A-word ban requires shielding one’s eyes, or, at a minimum, engaging in verbal gymnastics. What, after all, to call a system of legalized discrimination based on ethnicity and religion in which one group has full voting rights and the other does not? What to call a system under which one people can travel freely on roads built specifically for them, whisking through checkpoints because of their religion and the color of their license plates, and under which the other must submit to inspection at military kiosks frequently manned by snipers? A system under which one population in hilltop enclaves is protected by troops and military surveillance towers, while the other is subjected to frequent night raids by those same troops? Under which 40 percent of the adult male population has been forced to spend time in prison? Under which one group’s “civil administration” can designate a town of the other group as a historic archeological site and evict all the residents, who then must move into tents? Under which soldiers ordered Palestinian bathers out of a public swimming pool last spring so Jewish settlers could have a swim, alone and unbothered by the darker-skinned native population? 

Here’s what I found on a trip I made to the West Bank recently.

I and my Palestinian host left Jerusalem on a hot, dry morning, our access to the exclusive West Bank roads ensured by the precious yellow license plate of our vehicle. H. was aware that because of his origin he could be banned from the roads at any time.

Our destination was the old city of Hebron, one of the most surreal tableaus of the entire tragedy of Palestine and Israel, where 500 to 600 Jewish settlers, many of them from the United States, are protected by at least 1,500 soldiers in a city of 170,000 Palestinians. 

I looked out the open window to the east, feeling immediately the profound changes that had occurred in the landscape in the two years I’d been away. The red-roofed Jewish settlement of Efrat now stretched for nearly two miles. Adjacent were rows of white trailers, part of an “outpost” that Israel deems technically illegal but which, by Israel’s design, will soon be absorbed into the settlement. Israeli leaders call settlement expansion “natural growth”; this is how a Palestinian landscape is transformed into a Jewish one. The population of Efrat is officially about 10,000, though H. claims the real number is more than twice that.

In the distance, the 25-foot-high separation barrier marched south with us, and now, suddenly, at a narrow passage it reached us, transformed into a tastefully etched boundary of beige and tan. Settlers, H. told me, had complained that they found the ugly gray slabs distasteful as they commuted to prayer in Jerusalem or to the beach in Tel Aviv; now, with the wall’s offensive aspects eliminated for the privileged population, the separation of peoples carries the deceiving look of a simple sound barrier. 

Presently the road opened up again, and for a lovely, fleeting moment the landscape of Palestine appeared, unimpeded by barriers, settlements or checkpoints. Ancient terraced olive groves dotted the landscape, interspersed by vineyards of Hebron grapes, nearly ready. The cries of “Khalili ya anab,” H. told me, would soon ring out in the markets across Palestine: “The Hebron grapes are here!”

Few vendors were calling out 30 minutes later as we walked through the moribund Old City of Hebron, where urban settlement blocks stand brick to brick with Palestinian homes in a contorted geographical designation known as H-2. This arrangement was sanctioned by the international community in an agreement signed by the Palestinian Authority as part of the Oslo “peace process.” Israel had insisted that a few hundred settlers be allowed to stay in a neighborhood of tens of thousands of Palestinians because of a long Jewish presence there. The current settlers say they live in Hebron to honor the memory of Jews massacred there by Palestinians in 1929, during riots over Jewish immigration to Palestine. Yet the current settlers, among the most extremist of all Israelis, have little or no connection to the descendants of those massacred. Some of the descendants have denounced the Hebron settlements, pointing out that some Palestinian families sheltered Jews in the massacre; they call for removal of the settlers.

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