Apartheid Israel Israeli Arabs Middle East peace process Palestinians

Near the Dead Sea, a canary in a coal mine

There was a very disturbing, very sad story in Maariv yesterday. It describes a situation that is indefensable and ought to be condemned in the strongest possible terms:

(Translation courtesy of Israel News Today).


by Felix Frisch

IDF soldiers in the Jordan Valley this week received an order with which some of them find it hard to identify.

The Jordan Valley Brigade ordered a battalion of reserves serving in the northern Dead Sea area to set up a roadblock at the eastern edge of the Jerusalem-Jericho road and to prevent Palestinian civilians from all over the territories from reaching the Dead Sea.

Officers and soldiers serving in the area reported that they had been ordered to stop all Palestinian vehicles or vehicles of Arab Israelis, and to deny anyone with a Palestinian identity card access to the Dead Sea beaches. Officers at the brigade headquarters had explained that Israelis bathing on the north shore of the Dead Sea had not been pleased with the presence of the Palestinians whom they feared might harm them.

It should be noted that the northern Dead Sea is part of the territories. On the face of it, after removal of the roadblocks in the West Bank there should be no problem about allowing Palestinians to reach the Dead Sea shore and bathing there.

But a senior officer in Central Command said the ban on Palestinians reaching the shore is not the result of a whim. He said that since the opening of the bathing season large numbers of Palestinians have been coming to the northern Dead Sea shore, which is the only beach where Palestinian from the West Bank are allowed to bathe. In some cases, the officer said, violence and scuffles broke out between Palestinians and Jews. In addition, the officer said, there are some warnings of terrorist attacks in that area.

However the officer did not explain why, if the problem is one of security, why is the very thorough security check which the army conducts on the Palestinians at the road block insufficient.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Office response to our request to comment was:

“After an evaluation of the security situation it was decided at Central Command that Palestinian traffic from Judea and Samaria to the Jordan Valley would be permitted through the Taysir and Bekaot crossing points, after a full security check.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Office did not answer our question about why Palestinians are being denied access to the Dead Sea shore.

This is the kind of story that feeds into the increasingly popular tendency to equate Israel with South Africa under apartheid. I don’t buy into this equation…yet. There are a number of good arguments that show the differences.

Unlike South Africa, Israel is an occupying power that governs territory whose juridical status is still undetermined. The residents of the territory it occupies are not separated from –or ruled over- by the occupiers via race laws that apply to an entire country. Palestinians are governed by the laws of a military occupation that majorities of both Palestinians and Israelis want to end. The occupier and the occupied are in a relationship that has been forged by an unresolved territorial dispute that has led to a terrible, seemingly unending conflict. But, unlike white and black South Africans, the occupier and the occupied are not part of the same polity.

Moreover, Arabs within Israel proper have the right to vote and have access to most –although not all– privileges afforded to Jewish citizens. There is inequality between Jews and Arabs within Israel and the gaps must be closed, but the circumstances of Israel’s Arabs are not comparable to those of South Africa’s blacks under the thumb of whites.

But those are technical arguments. They are fine for political science classes. They don’t matter very much to people on the ground, in the Palestinian territories.

What matters is that the EXPERIENCE of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip resembles –and might even be worse than– the experience of South African blacks under apartheid.

What also matters is that the current occupation, the nature of the relationships between occupiers and the occupied, the legacy of tit-for-tat violence, and the enduring mistrust have created a situation that is a breeding ground for the natural tendency in all human beings to fear and loathe The Other. And that fear is the basis of racism, whether in Israeli Jews or Palestinian Arabs or suburban Americans who live in gated communities or the Danes, Swedes, Germans, and French who are appalled at the presence of Muslims in their midst.

Israel is not South Africa…yet. But slowly, inexorably, Israel is moving towards a situation that is very similar to that of South Africa’s during the apartheid years. As Jamie Levin, the former Executive Director of Ameinu, once said, the talk about apartheid is like the “canary in a coal mine” that is used to warn of impending disaster.

Ending the occupation is not a cure-all. Creating a self-governing, secure Palestinian state living side by side with Israel won’t end the kind of fear –and, yes, probably racism– that motivated those Israeli bathers to ask that Palestinians not swim in the same body of water. But surely the situation would improve if wishes like those of the Israeli bathers could not be enforced by the military apparatus of their state. Surely it would improve if and when the mutual mistrust and fear diminish. And there is no other way to diminish it except to ensure that Israelis no longer rule over Palestinians.

Further note: if you want to dive into an instructive, usually calm and very detailed debate about the 1-state vs. 2-state solution, check out the responses to “More conversations about one state vs. two states.” I learned a great deal from John Sigler, Tom Mitchell and Richard Witty.

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