Arguing over semantics is an unaffordable luxury for a 41-year-old occupation. The reality of millions of individuals whose human rights are violated day in and day out is morally unacceptable.
Has Israel’s unjust treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank reached a point where it merits being labeled “apartheid”? Is Israel truly comparable to pre-1993 South Africa? The argument over this issue has been heating up, but perhaps all of that energy is going in the wrong direction.
Here’s a thought: Call it what you will, just do what you can to end it.
Some of the discourse has been bewildering, the result of hypocrisy, extremism or misguided values. For instance, describing Israel’s actions in the territories with incorrect hyperbole is not only false but counterproductive. As the director of an Israeli human rights organization fighting the injustices on the ground, I can confidently say that bombastic articulations only make it more difficult to deal with the many justified claims.
On the other side of the spectrum, some participants in this discussion equate any criticism of Israel’s actions with anti-Semitism, to the extent that they perceive themselves as the only true guardians of morality and “acceptable” dialogue. Yet in doing this, not only do they not help Israel or the just fight against all forms of discrimination, they also miss the heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter is the heavy toll the prolonged occupation is taking on Palestinians’ daily lives and basic human rights: their access to health, education and employment; their freedom of movement; their political rights to expression, association and self-rule; and almost every other aspect of their existence. And while ensuring security is often invoked as the justification for these violations, human rights groups such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, or ACRI, have proved repeatedly that the real reasons are usually not security related but rather political, economic or just pure convenience.
Take a moment to consider the short list of major violations just articulated. Think of the last time a loved one was not well, or how long it takes to get your kids to school when you are stuck in traffic. Now think how you would feel if this were delayed, or subject to military approval, or beyond a checkpoint, or requiring an army-issued permit, or simply denied. Now multiply it several million times for each Palestinian in the West Bank. Now multiply again by 41 years.
While this is the fate of Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli military rule, Israeli citizens — settlers — living there are subject to a totally different system. They enjoy a separate but preferential system of justice, rights and benefits, and freedom of movement.
As a result, some Israelis sense a growing impulse to call this reality “apartheid.” These Israelis cherish their country’s democracy and are driven by their shame for Israel’s unethical and unlawful treatment of the Palestinians. They are frustrated at their inability to change this state of affairs almost to the point of desperation.
After 41 years the occupation still prevails, human rights violations continue and the policy of separation is becoming more and more entrenched. They seek a constructive way to wake the Israeli and international publics from their slumber.
Being an Israeli citizen, I am one of the 10 million individuals living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Hence I have a personal stake in people, globally, who care about peace and justice in this region, and hope that we can lift ourselves out of the rut of this discourse. It’s time to take a renewed look at the occupation, what we’re doing and what it is doing to us.
Route 443 connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a key example of “what we’re doing.” It is the subject of a pending Supreme Court petition, submitted by ACRI on behalf of the Palestinian residents of the villages bordering the road whose land Israel confiscated to build the road “for their benefit.” Now they are not allowed to use the road — for security reasons, the army claims. Yet tens of thousand of Israelis use it every day; it makes for an easier commute.
Even if Israel’s Supreme Court eventually decides to end this disgrace and save Israeli democracy in the case of Route 443, let us not miss the bigger picture. In so many parts of the West Bank, segregation is an inescapable characteristic of everyday life. Whether the segregation is obvious like with Route 443 or not, the resulting human rights violations are all equally immoral, and we are no less responsible for and complicit in their creation and perpetuation.
With the approval of segregated roads, the type of dichotomy imposed on Route 443 risks becoming widespread policy. Then, as ACRI wrote in its petition, Israeli rule in the West Bank will resemble “apartheid.”
Things are bad enough. People who care about a better future in this part of the world must begin to take responsibility and restart the conversation in a way that will make a difference for real people and for our society as a whole. When we bicker about language, we lose our capacity to discuss substance. So please, call it what you will. Just do what you can to end it.
(Hagai El-Ad is the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. This op-ed was written in response to the JTA series “Durban’s Descendants.”)