The response to describing the situation of the Palestinian people as an apartheid is often strong. Last year, US Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to apologise after a furious response to suggesting that Israel risked becoming an apartheid state, let alone actually being one. Invariably denouncers of the apartheid rhetoric point to Israel’s democratic credentials as evidence that it could not possibly enforce apartheid, yet this logic is highly flawed; neither citizens of Gaza nor the West Bank are privy to Israel’s democracy, yet their land remains under Israeli control. With no democratic process through which to object to the treatment they receive under Israeli occupation, the democratic argument collapses immediately. Even if this were not the case, do we really think democracy is incompatible with apartheid? A 2012 poll, for example, found that 58% of Israeli Jews surveyed believe Israel already practices apartheid against Palestinians. Worse still, this was something those polled were apparently in favour of:
“Two thirds would favour denying Palestinians the vote if Israel were to annex the West Bank. A third want Arab citizens within Israel to be banned from voting in elections to the country’s parliament. Almost six out of 10 say Jews should be given preference to Arabs in government jobs, 49% say Jewish citizens should be treated better than Arabs, 42% would not want to live in the same building as Arabs and the same number do not want their children going to school with Arabs.”
In other words, the majority of Israelis surveyed favour apartheid policies and are openly, and unashamedly, racist. A recent trip to Hebron, the most controversial town in the occupied West Bank, opened my eyes to the apartheid policies of the Israeli state. Under the Oslo Accords, Hebron became the only Palestinian city to have Israeli settlers living within it, when it was divided into H1, under control of the Palestinian Authority, and H2, under Israeli control. Under this division came 500 of Israel’s most hard-core Zionists, determined to colonise the Palestinian Territory.
After crossing through one of Hebron’s 56 checkpoints, I meet a Palestinian family living in their home in the Israeli-controlled H2 zone of the city, and they tell me how they have been offered millions to sell their house to settlers and move out of H2. When they refused to leave, the settlers cut their water, poisoned their fruit trees and repeatedly stole their olive harvest. The family I am talking to were forced to climb an eight foot wall to get to their house after the road to their house was closed to Arabs by the Israeli authority. Only after pressure from Amnesty International were they allowed to use a narrow footpath to get to their back door. The family have to apply for permits from the Israeli government to harvest their own olive trees, and injustice certainly not extended to the settlers. They have been granted a one day permit to harvest in four of the last five years, however the settlers have repeatedly used violent tactics to prevent them harvesting or else have stolen their olives. There is no system to prevent this happening, and the settlers continue to behave with impunity. In videos of confrontations during the olive harvest that have been posted to YouTube my host’s neighbours are aggressive and violent, with one of them screaming that Palestinians are Nazis and are to blame for the holocaust. My host stresses that before the creation of the Israeli state, Jews and Muslims lived relatively peacefully alongside each other in Hebron; it is Zionists that are the problem, he tells me, because of their militant racism towards Arabs and their belief that they have a God-given right to evict Palestinians from their own country.
Even more shocking is the violence that has been used by settlers against this Palestinian family. My host’s wife was beaten so badly by settlers that invaded their home that she has twice miscarried. There are bullet holes in their wall where settlers have shot at the house; while Israeli citizens living in ‘risk areas’ such as settlements are permitted to carry guns, my host tells me he is not even permitted to have kitchen knives in the house. Settlers have also broken into their house and trashed all their furniture on multiple occasions. They are the constant recipients of verbal death-threats from settlers. Later I speak to a family living just outside H2, but surrounded by settlers, who have been repeatedly offered vast sums of money, then threatened with violence, when they refuse to leave their home. The family cannot work because they are unable to leave their house for fear it will be invaded, and survive on donations from the local community and from selling trinkets. Their sixteen year old son tells me how settlers murdered two of his brothers with impunity. He also speaks of how his baby brother died at birth from strangulation from the umbilical cord because the Israeli authorities refused to allow an ambulance through a checkpoint. Most horrifying of all, settlers posted a Molotov cocktail through the window of a bedroom his baby twin brothers were sleeping in, killing them both. It is hard for me to understand how a family could show such resilience in the face of such incredible hatred and adversity, nor how settlers could behave with such a blatant disregard for human life.
The impunity given to the settlers by Israel’s government is just one aspect of apartheid policy. In H2, Palestinians are not permitted to run businesses or own cars. As a result, H2’s main Palestinian shopping area is deserted, with all the beautiful Ottoman-era shops boarded up. Under Israeli law if buildings or Palestinian land under Israeli occupation lies unused for 3 years, it automatically becomes Israeli property, regardless of whether the only reason it is unused is because it is Israeli law imposing this restriction. But the Palestinian community have a plan; they want to gift the historic property to UNESCO to prevent it falling into the hands of settlers, a certainty if it is seized by the Israeli state. Apartheid is defined by the Oxford Dictionary online as:
“A policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race”
It is impossible not to see the policies in Israeli-occupied Hebron as falling under this definition. Palestinians face restrictions and conditions placed on their rights to freedom of movement, freedom to run their own businesses and freedom to live a life free from discrimination based entirely on their race. To describe the conditions faced by Palestinians as anything other than apartheid does the victims of this horrendous racism a huge disservice. The sooner Western politicians wake up to this reality, the sooner they can place international pressure on Israel to end this horrific catalogue of human rights abuses. In order to do this we need to change the discourse. We must not be afraid to call the situation faced by Palestinians what is it: an apartheid, pure and simple.