In Hebron, a South African Compares Israeli Occupation to Apartheid

Every now and then in life, and maybe just when you want it, god throws down a thunderbolt. It happened to me on Friday in Hebron, in the Occupied Territories. A group of seven Israelis and I were sitting in an Arab man’s house, discussing the harassment and denial of movement to Palestinians in the center of that city—the second largest city in the West Bank—when I wondered for the 100th or thousandth time how the conditions I was seeing for myself in the occupation compared to apartheid in South Africa, which Americans rose up against 20 years ago.

Then the door opened and a group of international volunteers came in. I heard European accents, and a tall black man with a tan haversack walked across the room and took the seat right beside me.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“South Africa,” he said.

“Do you know about apartheid?”

“I lived through apartheid.”

“How does this compare to apartheid?”

“In Johannesburg we had access to all the roads; they do not have that here,” he said. “There were times we couldn’t use the roads but those were exceptional occasions. We did not have these checkpoints. We carried papers but we were not constantly having to produce our papers as I have seen happens here. Our schools were inferior, but at least we could go to school. Many of these children are harassed on their way to school or are not allowed to get to schools. I have been here only three and a half weeks–but in my opinion, it is worse than apartheid.”

“Worse than apartheid:” the words of Gosiame Choabi, an official of the South African Council of Churches.

I’m sure some people will seek to “contextualize” what Choabi said. They will talk about suicide bombers, or about the massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929, or the big picture of Arab dictatorships with no free speech that surround Israel, or the fact that apartheid was in every city across South Africa, not just occupied territories. All true. But they will never be able to explain away the conditions I saw for myself: the expulsion of Palestinians from the center of their second largest city to make room for a small group of religious nuts who have confiscated land and houses and buildings in the old city out of messianic beliefs, and the support for separation and confiscation and harassment through the government implementation of checkpoints and curfews and patrols and settlers-only highways, guarded by heavily-armed soldiers, roughly one soldier per settler.

When our group of 8 Jews, seven of them Israeli, walked around the ethnically-cleansed marketplace, the religious nuts threw rocks at us.

And if anyone wants to challenge this account, I will produce the Israeli woman who said that seeing this was as important for her as seeing Auschwitz. Or the young Israeli man who said that seeing a video in the Arab man’s house of settler girls waiting in a line outside the Arab school to throw rocks at the Arab girls and kick them and beat them so that they would abandon the school building, which is near a settlement, made him so nauseous he wanted to run out of the place and vomit. And most of all I will produce our group’s leader: Yehuda Shaul, burly and inspired and 23, who served again and again as a soldier in Hebron and in whom the Army produced a kind of soul murder, in which he was brought by degrees to shoot indiscriminately into Palestinian neighborhoods every night at dusk as a means of stopping the violence—a soul murder that Shaul is trying now to undo by leading weekly trips to the scene of his service and by collecting testimony of other soldiers as part of an organization called Breaking the Silence. What a Jew!

There are two obvious questions about what I saw. How does the grotesque treatment of Arabs impinge on Israeli society generally? How does it affect Arab attitudes?

As to Arab attitudes, the effect is devastating. Whatever anyone says about the Arab “street,” I have had many conversations here with privileged Arabs and I can tell you that they feel Rage. Rage and despair. There is a Palestinian magazine trying to be like New York Magazine, called This Week in Palestine, a glossy magazine with ads, and every article in there is a description in English of inequity, and a statement of rage. Every article. Enough about the goddamn street; across the Middle East, yes, Arabs are stifled in traditional societies, but they are acutely well informed about the occupation. This is America’s problem. It demonstrably played a part in Osama Bin Laden’s twisted cosmology and it is resented by the Shiites of Iraq who would volunteer to be martyrs on behalf of Sunnis in Palestine. Marty Peretz and Alan Dershowitz like to talk about how little Israel’s Arab neighbors have done for the Palestinians, beyond lip service. But remember that we didn’t do much for the blacks of South Africa in a material way, didn’t bring the children of Soweto into our homes; yet it was distant lip service by Americans, among them many angered middle-class blacks, that played a crucial role in transforming South Africa.

And what about Israeli society? How much awareness is there of what I saw? I asked the Israelis, and the young man who had wanted to vomit, Amnon Aaronsohn, 25, spoke with passion: “Israelis don’t know about this, they don’t want to know. And if you tell them about it, they say, Well there must be a good reason for it, and that is the end of it.” The woman who had spoken of Auschwitz said, “The majority of Israelis think this is for their own security, the rhetoric is so forceful.”

I said, “Well there is good reason for that, terrorism.” But she, who has monitored checkpoints for the human rights group Machsomwatch, said that the separation and humiliation go so far beyond national security questions, and are a “bureaucratic torture, preventing schooling, health care, any ways of normal life.”

I understood what Aaronsohn had told me, later, when I was on the beach in Tel Aviv. Israel is a beautiful country; and in many ways Israeli society is miraculous. It sprung up so quickly, to a European standard. But Israelis have generally blinded themselves to the apartheid in the back yard because if they did acknowledge it they would have to do something. This complacent blindering recalls the American south during the civil rights movement, or the founding fathers during slavery. They avoid the information. The newspapers say little about it, and I see that it is impolite to use the words “occupied territories.” You hear the words administered territories, Palestinian areas, or Judea and Samaria.

And meantime their children at 18 are forced into the service of governing the Arabs and poking the old men at checkpoints, and asking them for their papers. Yehuda Shaul said that when you give a teenager a gun and power, it changes him, he is not ready for the moral gray area he enters, he is soon abusing people, as the horrific testimonies on the Breaking the Silence’s website show.

We are discharged soldiers who have decided not to keep silent. To stop keeping to ourselves everything we’ve been through in the past 3 years. So far, hundreds of discharged combat soldiers have decided to break the silence and every day more people follow. We have one mission left: to talk, tell and not keep anything hidden.

Israeli society must know the price it is paying for every soldier serving in the occupied territories. Israeli society must realize the trap we are caught in, because while the army is trying to deal with the threat posed by terror, it is creating a disaster.

“Breaking The Silence” (“Shovrim Shtika” in Hebrew) should serve as a warning sign to Israeli society. We are alerting about irreversible corruption.

Irreversible corruption. When will progressive Americans deal with the facts brought forward by brave Israelis, and address this tragedy that our government underwrites?