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Israel's politics of separation come into sharp focus

The segregation policies of Israel create a system that always favours Israelis and Jewish settler interests above those of Palestinians
The details of Israel's long military occupation of the West Bank can often make even interested eyes glaze over. There is a complicated web of rules, military edicts and de-facto practices, a far-reaching and often opaque system that ensures preferential treatment for Jewish settlers, at the expense of subjugated Palestinians.

Normally all of this is convoluted, dry and more-or-less legal. And then something happens that makes this system at once visible, obvious - and manifestly unjust.

So it was with the announcement of new "Palestinian only" buses in the West Bank, introduced for the Palestinians' own good, we were told, to facilitate a cheaper and swifter passage to their blue-collar jobs in Israel. This is not one of the sights the Israeli government will take President Barack Obama to see during his visit to the region.

Only a small number of security-cleared, permit-holding Palestinians from the West Bank are allowed across the Green Line into Israel, and they must return the same day. So far, they've been travelling using either private Palestinian transport or Israel's extensive bus network for Jewish settlers. But the settlers didn't like that - hence the Palestinian-only buses.

The Israeli government insist this is all optional; that Palestinians will not be forced off settler buses. However, Israeli civil rights groups, such as Checkpoint Watch, report that Palestinians have in the past been told to get off settler buses, or not to use them at all. In other words, the law itself does not discriminate - but practice on the ground does.

The bus issue has proved too evocative to pass unobserved: the echoes of apartheid-era South Africa and of America's shameful past of legal racial discrimination are too loud and too clear.

"From a western perspective, and from a US perspective, the idea of a segregated bus line is a heinous part of a dark chapter in US history," says Yousef Munayyer of the Washington-based Jerusalem Fund. "People react to it as something they can recognise as a terrible policy." The story made US headlines, with newspapers reporting on the "segregation debate" within Israel.

As Mr Munayyer explains, the civil rights movement is a core part of US history, one whose effect is still felt. "It's a big issue here," he says of the powerful social movement that started in the mid-1950s and fought to outlaw race discrimination.

"Segregated bus lines register in the American collective memory because of that terrible history that we have hopefully moved beyond and should not be repeated. When Americans hear that something like this is happening elsewhere, it makes them cringe."

Palestinian-only buses have put the spotlight on Israel's wider segregation practices, which have long been documented by human rights groups.

"In Hebron you have roads where there exists legal segregation as an official doctrine," says Sarit Michaeli, who speaks for the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, citing one glaring example.

"It is called the separation policy, it's the doctrine that the security of the Israeli settlers in Hebron is based around, creating points where Palestinians cannot enter."

One of the flashpoints of the Israeli occupation, the West Bank city of Hebron is home to about 250,000 Palestinians and some 800 hardline Jewish settlers. Ms Michaeli cites other examples of segregation, such as the fact that settlements are military areas and so off limits to Palestinians, and that the "seam zone" area of Palestinian land between the Green Line and Israel's separation barrier is also off limits to Palestinians.

The list goes on - a catalogue of separation and discrimination: in allocation of resources such as land and water; in use of infrastructure such as roads in the West Bank; in terms of freedom of movement - or lack of it.

Separate systems exist even in the execution of the law - Jewish settlers are funnelled into the Israeli court system, while West Bank Palestinians are subject to military courts, with different practices and fewer protections.

Ms Michaeli explains that such practices aren't part of a uniform system informed by a single rationale. "It is a complex situation, not a one-dimensional thing," she says. "It is not one exact identical system, but it is obviously a system that always favours Israelis and Jewish settler interests above Palestinian interests."

Sometimes security interests are invoked. Other times - such as, blatantly, in the case of the path of Israel's separation wall, or West Bank water allocation - the reasons are clearly economic. But the net result is the same: Jewish and Israeli interests always trump Palestinians.

Ms Michaeli rejects claims, set out by some Israeli commentators, that such policies are enforced on the basis of nationality and not race. "That is disingenuous, to say the least," she says. "It is obviously connected to being Jewish or Arab, not to being Palestinian or Israeli." The settlement enterprise is, she notes, self-evidently about Jews, not Israelis - has a Palestinian citizen of Israel ever moved to a West Bank settlement? Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank clearly interpret the policies as racial.

But what is perhaps more striking in all of this is that, even while the US baulks at the bus-provoked exposure of Israeli segregation, there is no sign of official condemnation for such practices.

Mr Munayyer noted that US President Barack Obama is likely to use his current visit to Israel "to talk about shared values".

But "when this ongoing system of segregation exists, that is really hard to wrap your brain around. It is really a disconnect."

 

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and the author of Not the Enemy - Israel's Jews from Arab Lands

On Twitter: @rachshabi

Updated: March 21, 2013 04:00 AM

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