Skip to content

Cape Times oped

  • by

Apartheid is alive and well in a street in the Israeli-controlled West Bank

February 25, 2010 Edition 1

By Zenande Booi and Quinton Combrink

Apartheid South Africa demanded surplus quantities of moral blindness and monomaniacal creativity from those tasked with ensuring the separation between black and white. And then the systems of influx control, separate identity cards, and Bantustan development folded like a spectacular house of cards.

Off somewhere, in old age, sit those men who played God, either reconciled to their folly or nursing an injured pride while doggedly insisting on the unappreciated genius of their grand policy of separation.

It would surely add insult to injury for them to find out about the current arrangements in Shuhada Street in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. Not only is the separate-roads policy, of which Shuhada Street is a prime example, an absurdity that surpasses South Africa’s separate beaches, but it is also part of a planned "policy of separation" – because that is the official terminology – alive and well in the 21st century.

Shuhada Street was the main commercial street in Hebron, the largest city in the Palestinian West Bank. On February 25, 1994, Dr Baruch Goldstein, a new Jewish-American immigrant, dressed in his Israeli military uniform, entered the Ibrahimi Mosque and opened fire, killing 29 people and wounding 150. After this massacre the Israeli army introduced the official policy of separation in Hebron, which included the closure of Shuhada Street. The thriving market that ran the length of the street was closed and Palestinian traffic proscribed. Today, Palestinians who live in Shuhada Street cannot walk in it, and therefore cannot enter their homes through the front doors. To get into their houses often means passing over a neighbour's roof. We have seen footage of an old woman heaving herself through a window to go grocery shopping. This city of 170 000 people is divided in two. The 1997 Hebron Protocol created two areas: H1 under Palestinian control and H2 under Israeli control. From the beginning of the intifada in September 2000 entrances were closed by concrete blocks and checkpoints isolating H1 from the surrounding villages. H2 has a population of about 30 000 Palestinians and 800 Jewish Israelis. This settler population is protected by 500 Israeli soldiers. From September 2000, Palestinians in H2 were under curfew for more than 377 days in three years, sometimes not allowed to leave their houses for weeks at a time, other than a few hours every few days to stock up on provisions. Hundreds of businesses and streets were closed in a widening buffer zone around the Israeli settlements. With such severe restrictions on movement, and regular harassment by soldiers and settlers, H2 has experienced an exodus of its Palestinian population. This is part of a broader strategy by settlers to increase their numbers and remove Palestinians in areas throughout the West Bank. There is a simple logic to this: a two-state agreement would result in Israel's withdrawal from significant parts of the West Bank; fearing this, and knowing that Israel may succeed in retaining those settlements where a critical mass of Jewish people is well established, every pocket or town of settlers busies itself with feverish expansion. The result is ethnic-cleansing by stealth: a suffocating bureaucracy and continuous intimidation by settlers, seldom checked by the army, make normal life impossible. Shuhada Street is a symbol of this reality. Closed to Palestinians, including those who live there, it is used freely by various categories of people: settlers living in Hebron, soldiers stationed in Hebron, any Israeli citizens, any person qualifying for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return (any Jewish person living anywhere in the world), and anyone with an Israeli tourist visa. It's an apartheid road. The disruption of life revolves around ensuring the well-being of a few hundred settlers whose presence dates to 1968, a year after Israel conquered the territory. That year the settlers requested permission from the Israeli army to celebrate Passover in Hebron. After the holiday, they announced their intention to establish a Jewish settlement in the heart of the Palestinian city. The government allowed settlers to remain in Hebron, moving them to a military base, and then in 1970 creating the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba for permanent Jewish homes. Over the decades new settlements have been established in the heart of Hebron itself. And nothing happens without the planned or tacit support of the Israeli state. Closure of roads, demolition or occupation of Palestinian buildings, and the official creation of new settlements are often preceded by attacks on the Jewish settlers. More than 20 settlers have been killed over the years. Each such attack results in a new part of the city being closed to its Palestinian residents and open to settler expansion. The settlers see themselves as re-establishing the historic Jewish community of Hebron. According to the Abrahamic faith traditions, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah (and possibly others, including Adam and Eve) are buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs (also housing the Ibrahimi Mosque, site of the Goldstein massacre). The site is therefore considered sacred in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jewish communities have been a notable presence, particularly since the 11th century. The Arabic-speaking Jewish population of Hebron lived in relative harmony with the much larger Muslim and tiny Christian populations of the city for centuries. In 1929, as resistance to Zionist settlement in the region increased, 67 Jewish residents were killed in a massacre that led to the dissolution of the city's Jewish community. The settlers draw on this history constantly, but descendants of the actual survivors of 1929 have distanced themselves from the settlers. Many Israelis agree: the price the settlers extract is too high. But they remain there. The Afrikaner ideologues who engineered apartheid's nightmares also drew on an identity of hardship forged with ongoing reference to the suffering endured in the Great Trek and Boer War. Unquestionably, the real history of persecution against Jewish people exceeds this by orders of magnitude. But this fact reinforces the tragedy of the situation in Hebron, where Jewish settlers have imposed on the local population a system of separation, legalised theft and ghettoisation comparable to the Jewish historical experience. > Booi and Combrink are law students at UCT and members of Open Shuhada Street (OSS), a global campaign with South African roots. OSS has organised a global day of action today, the anniversary of the Goldstein massacre, which includes a vigil outside Parliament at 1pm tomorrow.