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Segregation, harassment mark Palestianian life


Most Americans link the term apartheid only with South Africa, but this term is increasingly being used by Palestinians and their supporters -- including many Israelis -- for the policy of separation of Arab and Jewish populations that is guiding Israel’s “master plan” for its “settlement” with the Palestinians.

“Apartheid” in South Africa is a vivid memory for me. I lived and taught in South Africa in 1989, months before the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. During that period, the “Defiance Campaign” was at its height. Groups of black South Africans, with help from anti-apartheid whites, were challenging the many ways that blacks were kept as second-class citizens. Martial law was still in force, and public protests of any kind were banned. Arrests, often accompanied by severe beatings, were common for black protesters and even for some white ones. I remember groups of my South African friends marching in protest in Cape Town, led by Bishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, only to be scattered by whip-wielding police that chased them through the streets.

Among the activities of the Defiance Campaign were the intentional mounting of white-only buses, taking sick people of color to white-only emergency rooms and engaging in group picnics at white-only beaches. I particularly remember the beach protests. Large groups would pack their lunch baskets and take off for white-only beaches with the whole family. A South African friend and I drove out to watch the events. We found the beaches surrounded by troops. The nonviolent beach protesters with their children and picnic baskets were being treated as if they were national security threat No. 1. The absurdity of apartheid had never been so evident, an effect that the beach protesters intended.

These images of squadrons of armed troops blocking people from going to the beach have been repeated in recent months in Israel. These struggles have been documented by Israeli journalists, such as Suzanne Goldenberg, an Israeli writer who lives in Tel Aviv. In the June 10 London Guardian, she describes the natural impulse of many Palestinian Arabs, some of whom live in and are citizens of Israel, to escape the sweltering heat of summer days by a family excursion to the beautiful palm-dotted beaches of the Mediterranean coast of Israel. However, as Israeli Jews were settling down for a pleasant day at the beach, their fellow citizens who are Arab Palestinians have been faced with a night in jail for following the same impulse.

Current government policy has been to enforce an apartheid policy in beaches and recreation areas of Israel. In response to this policy, Tel Aviv police were out in force this summer, detaining some Palestinian families headed for the beach and driving others away. The enforcement of Jewish-only beaches began in May and was vigorously enforced through the summer. Thousands of Palestinians were detained, including children on school trips. Israeli coach drivers faced charges under the Security Act.

Goldenberg tells the story of one such Palestinian family: “One East Jerusalem family’s day at the beach ended in tears and a fog of exhaust fumes at 10 a.m. yesterday when the police confiscated their car, marooning them with their picnic basket on a traffic island on a busy avenue. The family members, who were afraid to give their names, have the legal right to travel anywhere in Israel. But when the police hauled them over for the customary questioning of every Palestinian who dares to visit the beaches, they discovered that the father owed 91,000 shekels in back taxes on his shop. They seized his car and put his wife and two teenage children under armed guard until a relative could arrive to ferry them home. ‘Officially, they cannot prohibit us from coming here,’ said the father. ‘But they are determined to harass us, even if we do have legal rights. They just don’t want us to be happy.’ ”

Since the beginning of the “peace process” in the mid-’80s, Israel has kept Palestinians penned into the crowded confines of the West Bank and Gaza, barring most of them from travel out of their areas to other Palestinian regions, especially East Jerusalem. A strict system of workers’ permits prevents Palestinians in the territories from traveling into Israel, except for those few workers who have menial jobs that Israelis will not take. The number of Palestinians allowed such permits has steadily fallen, and unemployment has grown in Gaza and the West Bank. It is estimated that poverty has grown sharply and income fallen by half during these last seven years.

Israeli Jews also are barred from visiting Gaza. Foreign travelers who go to Gaza have their passports stamped and are closely interrogated and even strip-searched when departing from Israel. I have experienced this kind of treatment several times. Clearly the desire of the government is not to let either Israelis or outsiders see the destitution of this most ghettoized and impoverished area of what is claimed to be the core of a Palestinian “autonomous territory.”

It appears that, as the date for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority grows nearer, Israel is trying to create a complete separation between Palestinians and Jews, within Israel and in the territories. For example, in the Pisgat Ze-ev area of Jerusalem, the police routinely stop Palestinian children playing in the park. In the central Israel town of Ranana, the council recently barred non-residents from visiting the amusement park to keep out Palestinian tourists. In the territories, there are hardly any recreation facilities.

As always, the pretext for these measures of separation is security. Police claim that they are enforcing the permit regulations to stop potential terrorists from entering Israel. But even Palestinians who have permits to be in Israel find themselves detained when they seek to take a dip in the cooling waters of the ocean. Sometimes they are told to leave the well-kept areas patronized by Jews and to swim in the rocky bay near the largely Arab area of Jaffa. Some Palestinians leave meekly when ordered off the beach, while others, such as some college students from Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, have decided to test the law by returning several times.

The excessive bloodshed that has been inflicted on Palestinian protesters in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem makes abundantly clear what should have already been obvious. The status quo created by Israeli apartheid policy toward the Palestinians is completely unsustainable. It allows for no security for Palestinians or ultimately for Israelis. It cannot be the basis for any “peace.”

It is crucial for Americans and the world community generally to understand the assumptions of the Israeli view of the “peace process.” This plan essentially is to create small segregated areas in the West Bank and Gaza that are internally under Palestinian rule, but are embedded in a system of Israeli control that closes their borders at will and can intervene within them at any time. The people in these segregated areas are kept from adequate economic and cultural development and forbidden access to the Israeli areas, except on limited permits for low-paying jobs.

The name for this system is not “peace,” but apartheid. The sooner the American people and its politicians are clear about that the sooner it will be possible to prevent this system from being set in stone, necessitating a long struggle against it -- like the one in its final stages in South Africa in 1989.

I suggest that the next time members of your church, synagogue, mosque or school go to the “Holy Land,” you spend some time visiting and hearing the stories of what daily life is like for Palestinians under Israeli power. Maybe you can take a group of Palestinian families to the beach or to an amusement park and see what happens.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill. Her e-mail address is Rosemary.Ruether@nwu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000