x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

From South Africa to Israel: personal stories of apartheid

I didn't experience the brutality of a state designed only to serve a settler population first-hand until I moved to Ramallah in 2007.

I grew up in an anti-apartheid household in Toronto. My parents met while my father was touring southern Africa as part of a Canadian anti-apartheid organisation, building links with postcolonial African socialist states and the South African liberation movement. On long car journeys, our family would mix Nelson Mandela's autobiography with Just William children's story tapes, and my parents would occasionally hire a babysitter so they could attend organising meetings for the international boycott campaign against South Africa.

As much as I was taught about apartheid, the violence of segregation, and the brutality of a state designed only to serve a settler population, I didn't experience it first-hand until I moved to Ramallah in 2007. Going to Jerusalem through the Qalandia terminal checkpoint and watching the soldiers harass and degrade Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs - while most of my Ramallah friends were barred from travelling there altogether - was the first I saw of state-run segregation. Walking through the Balata refugee camp on the edge of Nablus was the first township-style ghetto I set foot in. Seeing the Palestinian Authority beat anti-Bush demonstrators in the street during the former president's visit in 2008 was my first real taste of the bitterness of Inkatha-style divide-and-rule.

In Ramallah I was regularly woken in the middle of the night to the sounds of my neighbours' gates being blown off, followed by the screams of children as their father or brother was violently taken by the Israeli army. However, it was not until I met Ibrahim Bornat that I really understood the price Israel imposes on Palestinians who demand freedom and equality. A vocal activist in the West Bank town of Bi'lin, struggling against Israel's use of the wall to annex village farmland to the nearby Jewish settlement, Ibrahim was arrested on February 2 during a night raid on the village. After appearing regularly in the front lines of the weekly protests against Israel's barrier, he now sits in Israel's notorious Ofer military prison alongside other leaders of the town's Non-Violent Popular Committee, facing a slew of charges in a military court.

I first met Ibrahim - who says he has been shot more than 80 times with steel-coated rubber bullets and tear gas - in Ramallah in 2007 after he was discharged from hospital. He had been shot in the face with a tear-gas canister, leaving a permanent dent in his forehead. His older brother, Ronnie, was paralysed by an Israeli sniper at the beginning of the second Intifada, yet no sooner had the bandages come off than Ibrahim was again marching next to his brother's wheelchair to defend their family's farmland.

Then, during a weekly protest in June 2008, Ibrahim was shot three times in the upper leg with live Israeli fragmentation bullets, which almost killed him. Spending months in hospital, at first he believed his demonstrating days were over, opting to use art to express his resistance while wondering if he would ever walk again. However, while slowing recovering in a rehabilitation centre, he told me that he would return to protest and not let Israel's violence silence him.

Now, about to face down Israeli military commanders again - this time in the courtroom - it is unlikely that Ibrahim will stand on his porch and watch apartment buildings go up on his family's olive groves any time soon. These days I'm based in Jaffa, on the south edge of Tel Aviv's vibrant metropolis, where the picture of state segregation and displacement has lighter tones. My apartment is on the edge of the historically Arab city's last majority Palestinian community, in what is effectively Israel's version of Cape Town's District Six.

While my neighbours face eviction by landlords looking to turn apartments into condos for Jewish residents from northern Tel Aviv, large development companies are being awarded municipal contracts to build exclusively Jewish apartment complexes on majority Palestinian streets. Meanwhile Palestinian residents - who hold Israeli citizenship - are denied building and repair permits for their homes in a municipal strategy to pressure them to leave, making space available for wealthier Jewish residents. The Israeli army evicted 90 per cent of Jaffa's Palestinian inhabitants in 1948 - mostly sending them on boats down to Gaza - but now Israel is entering a new stage of putting Palestinians out of sight.

Despite this, there will not be any Israel Apartheid Week events at Tel Aviv University, which sits atop the Palestinian village of Sheikh Munis. Started at the University of Toronto in 2005, Israel Apartheid Week has become an annual rallying point across the world for students fighting for Palestinian justice. But it is only on the other side of the wall, in Bethlehem and Ramallah, where public events confronting Israeli apartheid take place.

As students around the world this week take a stand for justice in Palestine, like my parents did for South Africa, I think of Nelson Mandela's clarity when he said: "The UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years, an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."

Jesse Rosenfeld is a journalist based in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Ramallah and the editor of The Daily Nuisance