Israel In Palestine
You Mean It’s Not Apartheid?
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, December 13, 2006
Faux-fence art: you can whitewash apartheid, too
Every once in a while in the American press the human interest angle of the Palestinian story in the occupied territories is given a little runt-like attention. A few weeks ago The Times’s Greg Myers took a “two-day, 75-mile trip along Road 60, the main north-south highway that runs along the hilly spine of the West Bank,” to examine “the daily friction between Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers.” In a more expansive, if slightly less brutal Herod-like decree, Arab men under 35, he found, are not allowed to leave the area. So delays at checkpoints last two hours. Those aren’t checkpoints to cross into Israel, mind you. The Berlin Wall of the Holy Land, cleansingly called a “security fence,” has taken care of that by reducing the sheer number of crossing points to token numbers. No. The checkpoints Greg Myers traveled, are deep inside Palestinian territory in the West Bank, and manned by Israeli soldiers, part of the 542 physical obstacles Palestinians must navigate within their own territory to get from one point to another: “As Palestinians make their way through dozens of military checkpoints, they are delayed for hours, rerouted to dirt roads and sometimes turned back altogether on their way to jobs, schools and family visits. They also face hundreds of unattended obstacles that include earth mounds, concrete blocks and trenches that have cut many roads, forcing lengthy detours.” It’s an effective way to dehumanize Palestinians, make them know that their status and dignity as individual is not a concern, that they must at best be endured, at worst ignored or fumigated by way of obstacles and daily, hourly irritants, like vermin. Needless to say, the economy in the territory is measured in misery as a result.
A few weeks earlier, in September, also in The Times, Steven Erlanger wrote a piece about Gaza ’s social and economic conditions: “As Parents Go Unpaid, Gaza Children Go Hungry.” Gaza is one of the great infamies of the age, a non-country with the population of a country, and in lock-down. The Palestinian Authority has lost all funds from Israel , Europe and the United States since Hamas won the legislative elections in January. Jobs are scarce. Job commutes to Israel forbidden. Even fishermen aren’t allowed to stray more than a few yards from shore if they want to avoid netting an Israeli gunboat’s shell. Yes, Hamas’ intransigence shares the blame. But put aside the politics and fanatics for a moment. Consider the situation from a humanitarian aspect. Not even in Iraq ’s Anbar province, where Americans are attacked more than a hundred times a day, are local Iraqis treated with nearly the same vehement oppression and calculated de-humanization as are Gazans at Israel ’s hands. The severest crack-down began after the kidnapping by Hamas of an Israeli soldier in June. But the difference is a matter of degrees, not method. Here’s Edward Sheehan writing a couple of years back in The New York Review, in a piece called “The Disintegration of Palestine”:
Of late, the Israelis have been targeting various quarters of the city very late at night, kicking in doors and taking prisoners, but they still occasionally enter during the day. Israeli sharpshooters can sometimes be seen at their posts on hills and rooftops. On a street in the Balata refugee camp, where I met many undernourished children, a boy of six was eating a sandwich on his doorstep when a soldier shot him dead for no reason. So his uncle and other residents told me when I talked to them separately: they could not all have agreed on the same story if it was false.
Against this backdrop comes the usually able Michael Kinsley with an oddly flippant column about the Israel-Palestinian conflict in general and Jimmy Carter’s “unfair” branding of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid. He begins with this entirely inaccurate statement: “In the six decades since the founding of Israel, there have been about one and a half new ideas for solving the most intractable problem on the map of the world.” It’s not ideas that have been lacking. It’s the will to execute them, on both sides (here’s a quick one: stop building those settlements in occupied territories, and give Palestinian property rights their due). Kinsley then berates the Iraq Study Group for linking a solution to Mideast problems in general to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then begin his intellectual whirls about Carter’s “foolish and unfair comparison” of Israel to South Africa, a comparison “unworthy of the man who won—and deserved—the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing Israel and Egypt together in the Camp David Accords.”
I mean, what's the parallel? Apartheid had a philosophical component and a practical one, both quite bizarre. Philosophically, it was committed to the notion of racial superiority. No doubt many Israelis have racist attitudes toward Arabs, but the official philosophy of the government is quite the opposite, and sincere efforts are made to, for example, instill humanitarian and egalitarian attitudes in children. That is not true, of course, in Arab countries, where hatred of Jews is a standard part of the curriculum.
I like that line, humanitarian and egalitarian attitudes in children. Much of the separation of Palestinians and Israelis—the dread that Arabs represent, demographically, to Israel’s existence—is predicated on the racial superiority of Israelis. But where Kinsley shows his own unfairness is in raising those straw men of a “philosophical component and a practical one” to apartheid. If the exact situation doesn’t exist between Israel and the Palestinians, Kinsley essentially argues, it couldn’t possibly be apartheid. “The practical component of apartheid involved the creation of phony nations called ‘ Bantustans.’ Black South Africans would be stripped of their citizenship and assigned to far-away Bantustans, where often they had never set foot.”
In absolutely technical terms, no, apartheid doesn’t apply between Israelis and Palestinians, but only in so far as South African apartheid cannot be replicated anywhere else, nowhere else being South Africa. There are particular differences. There are also obvious similarities, similarities that overwhelm the technical differences. Put more simply, the letter of apartheid may not apply. It applies in spirit. And let’s not use pedantic details to obscure the observable. Who on earth, even in the 1980s, ever really connected apartheid to the notion of Bantustan? Apartheid then and apartheid now means racial separation and discrimination. If that’s not what informs every aspect of the relationship between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, then maybe ClubMed has it all wrong. Gaza should be a fine place for a vacation spot.
The counter-argument of course is Israel’s roominess for Arabs in Israel proper, down to representation in its parliament. True enough. But those are the “good Arabs,” the poster children of Israel’s pseudo-pluralism. Point to them, and it’s as if the horrors of Gaza and the West Bank disappear. (Kinsley recognizes them as such: “They are a bit on display, like black conservatives at a Republican convention. No doubt they suffer discrimination. Nevertheless, they are citizens with the right to vote and so on.”) Not so fast. When reference is made to apartheid, it’s to Gaza and the West Bank that we refer, to their reduction to massive, locked-down ghettoes, to their marginalization as places where human beings, rather than “terrorists” and “Arabs”—two terms that are redefining the more refined execution of apartheid—live. Jimmy Carter’s book isn’t actually about any of this. His aim is to convince American evangelicals that they’re on the wrong side if they’re taking up Israel’s standard ( Israel should know that Evangelicals are on their side only for opportunistic reasons anyway: The Evangelical narrative needs Jews as a stepping-stone to the return of Christ in the Holy Land). But it’s Carter’s book title that’s causing all the furor. And it’s a word worth addressing head-on, regardless of Carter’s book: The comparison with South Africa’s apartheid regime is inaccurate only in so far as what the Palestinians have been living through for the last many years is worse.