Israel needs tear down its walls of shame that keep people apart in this troubled region, writes Barney Pityana.
Israel, at the best of times, is a scary place. One begins to have this sense of fear from the moment one walks into the immigration halls at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
It is this sense of being watched, being followed, and becoming aware of security personnel all around – some in uniform and others in civilian clothes.
The questions one has to answer repeatedly are enough to send a chill down one’s spine.
That was the welcome that awaited a group of civil society activists from South Africa on a fact-finding mission to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories recently.
One often assumes that one can handle situations like this after many years of social justice activism around the world.
However, nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced in Israel and the occupied territories during a week’s visit last month.
First, I must pay tribute to that army of civil society and justice activists, both Jewish and Palestinian, who at great risk to themselves are campaigning for a new and peaceful future for both Jew and Palestinian.
They are to be found in the opposition benches in the Knesset, among academics both at the Palestinian and Jewish universities, and from civil society activists, as well as among journalists who continue to uphold freedom of expression in that troubled region.
The visit to the official Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem was shocking in presentation, in its graphic and gruesome detail of the experiences of Jewish people under Nazism.
Two thoughts came to my mind.
Firstly, that this was a story of a people whom the world had turned its back on, to our eternal shame. In a sense, nothing that could have been done subsequently could wipe away that neglect.
Although I had visited a number of other such monuments around the world, the juxtaposition of location and context that struck one with amazing immediacy drove home the horror of it all.
Secondly, I became concerned about the monumentalisation of victimhood, and the meta-narrative that accompanied it all, of history as myth.
This is not to suggest that it is fiction, but that history may serve the function of preserving the prevailing ideologies and power interests.
Myth so understood becomes intolerant of criticism, and becomes blind to its darker side. Instead it is built upon hegemonic ideas of the moment, or reinforces beliefs and ideas or values of a society in a manner that justifies it and any actions, however selectively.
I sometimes wonder whether the Jewish people would not benefit if they were to set aside their victim mentality, and enter the brave new world in the community of nations, to transform it for the better.
The fact-finding mission was organised by Open Shehuda Street, an international NGO campaigning on Palestinian issues and the Cape Town-based German foundation, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, at the end of last month.
Shortly afterwards, the team issued a statement on its visit, entitled We Owe It To Ourselves.
What I found hardest to understand, though, was the determination by the state of Israel to expand settlements, and to be held to ransom by fanatical Jewish elements from the diaspora, who are descending on Palestinian territories to evict, occupy and threaten the lives and livelihood of Palestinians, rendering them homeless and stateless.
It is easy to believe what one hears from the Palestinian sources that the purpose of Israel is definitely to “forcibly remove” Palestinians from the land of their forefathers, and then to claim it as a Jewish homeland.
Until one sees this at work in the land-grab at Shehouda Street in Hebron, or in Silwan in East Jerusalem, one better come to terms with how serious it all is.
This is made even more poignant when one has regard to the fact that the basis for this land-grab is at best threadbare and spurious.
How can one use biblical evidence to establish a right in a land far away from where they are citizens? Most of the “settlers” are citizens of other countries.
There is a “law of return” for the Jews that claims to be founded on biblical evidence. Nothing could be more nonsensical.
This is made even more absurd when that same policy is denied to Palestinians who have a more recent and direct and legally-sound claim to the land, going back within living memory of the events of 1948, when the modern Israeli state was founded. Palestinian citizens remain in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan without any rights to their own homeland.
This is a travesty of justice.
During our visit we saw rather irascible and trigger-happy recent Jewish immigrants, under the protection of the security forces, occupying, evicting local residents, establishing no-go areas enforced by the security forces.
My final observation is about the workings of the legal system, such as it is. The Palestinian people are subjected to military administrative law that is as good as a permanent state of emergency.
Their movements are regulated by a perverse system of permits or, in apartheid language, of pass laws.
There are also roads reserved only for the Jews, where no Palestinian may be found. This is enforced by checkpoints, armed soldiers and frequent raids on Palestinians at their homes.
A ghastly wall snakes its way through Palestinian villages across East Jerusalem, separating Palestinian from Palestinian, dividing families and isolating communities.
I last saw something like that in Berlin as a mark of the Cold War. That Wall went down with the yearning for freedom by Berliners. The same will happen to the Wall of Jerusalem.
In effect, there is no rule of law in Israel, but rule by fear prevails.
The operation of law is arbitrary and Palestinian victims have no recourse to procedural or administrative justice. Army raids on Palestinian homes are a regular feature of life under Jewish occupation in Palestine.
The raids often lead to various forms of detention, torture and assault of prisoners, indeterminate detention without trial.
Protests, however peaceful, are illegal and those who participate face arrest or death. Children are never immune from the strong arm of Israeli law in the hands of the army of occupation.
The delegation had a sense of this everyday experience of Palestinians when one of us was held back and interrogated for three hours upon arrival at the Ben Gurion Airport, or when we were stopped at the Alarot checkpoint and subjected to searches, and at the airport upon departure when Israeli security sought to subject us to yet another search.
To think that this is the daily experience of Palestinians means that one is not surprised at the occasional revolts from Palestinian communities.
In the light of this ongoing and intensified repression, one wonders whether there are any solutions to the problem of Palestine.
The first thing that needs to be said, and it must be said loud and clear, is that Israel is a rogue state.
It is in defiance of international law, honours none of the agreements it is signatory to, and is illegally occupying territory belonging to the people of Palestine.
It has substituted its own laws for those that rightly belong to the Palestinian Authority, with whom they are supposed to be in a partnership for peace.
Israel sponsors illegal activities of the settlers and is engaged in activities that would render the people of Palestine not only homeless and stateless, but also without any means of an economic livelihood.
The activity of sealing and boarding up the homes of Palestinians while they are in occupation of their homes, preventing access to their homes and livelihood, is truly mind-boggling.
Israel does not obey any of the provisions of international law pertaining to human rights and the administration of justice.
The second point that must be made definitively is that the Oslo Agreements are dead. No one believes the two-state solution is a viable proposition any longer.
Israel is clearly not interested in abiding by them, and the Palestinian Authority is in a bind because there is nothing else in its place.
The two-state solution is being dismantled by the persistent policy of ever-expanding settlements and the ruthless occupation of Palestinian territory, rendering the Palestinian Authority, as someone told us, like the Vichy puppet regime in Nazi-occupied France.
It seems clear to me there could be no justification for the establishment, under international protection, of a religious state.
To entertain the idea of a Jewish state is as good as saying that Boko Haram and the Islamic State are entitled to establish their theocratic caliphates, undertake ethnic cleansing to give effect to it and repress anyone within their borders who does not abide by their version of sharia law.
That is surely preposterous.
The state of Israel is legitimate in international law, but not as a religio-ethnic monstrosity.
Finally, efforts to find a lasting solution must continue.
What was clear to us, and it should also be clear to the government and people of Israel, is that any state that maintains its hold on power over others by means of a security machinery and the apparatus of a police state is never sustainable in the long run.
The futility of this was illustrated to us during our visit when the Israeli Minister of Defence, Moshe Ya’alon, issued a directive that bans Palestinian workers from travelling on Israeli-run public transport in the West Bank.
Under pressure from leaders of the settler movement, the reasoning from one of the leaders of the settlers movement is revealing: “Riding these buses is unreasonable. They are full of Arabs.”
The maintenance of a patchwork of Palestinian territories watched over by Jewish army personnel as well as the maintenance of administrative courts in order to keep a check on dissent is oppressive.
The international community should not keep silent in the face of so much human repression and privation.
Not today, not even in the time of the Holocaust. One Holocaust does not justify another. Impunity must be brought to an end.
As we were departing from Ben Gurion airport, one of the security personnel sought to engage us (yes, the only one who appeared to have some humanity left in him).
The security officer put forward the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian federation of states.
At least there is somebody in the region who is thinking out of the box in the region.
* Pityana is Rector of the College of the Transfiguration, Grahamstown, and Honorary Visiting Professor at the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, Department of Philosophy, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
This piece was originally published in the Sunday Independant
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