Journey to the Holy Land: Palestine cannot win its freedom alone

Bruce Baigrie is a committee member of Open Shuhada Street, a South African organisation campaigning for human rights in Palestine and Israel. He has previously served as chairperson for the UCT Palestine Solidarity Forum. He is currently completing his Master degree in Conservation Biology at UCT.

A group of South Africans – including Vusi Pikoli, Barney Pityana, Mbali Ntuli and Firoz Cachalia, among others – recently travelled to Israel and Palestine to witness the occupation first hand. As a co-organiser, my week there was one of nausea, tears, depression and inspiration, and I realised that despite their incredible courage, Palestinians cannot win their freedom alone.

(The above column represents the author’s personal views and not necessarily the official positions of any organisations that facilitated the delegation.)

The ancient city of al-Khalil or Hebron is an evocative place. It is rich in history and the site of the Cave of the Patriarchs, where rest the tombs of many of the prophets of the monotheistic faiths, including its father Abraham. The Arabic name of the city, meaning ‘the friend’, derives from Abraham’s description in the Qur’an as the ‘friend of God’. Hebron is also evocative because it is emblematic of the Apartheid and violence that accompanies Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Not anywhere in the West Bank, nor probably in any part of the world, is racial segregation as extreme as in this city. As the largest Palestinian city it is vital to the economy of the West Bank, but the occupation has all but destroyed what once was the central hub of the town. In 1968 a group of extremist Zionists rented rooms in a hotel for Passover and then refused to leave. The military eventually convinced them to go and construct the neighbouring settlement of Kiryat Arba. It was from this settlement that in 1979 another group occupied a building in the middle of the night, establishing the first settlement inside the Old City.

There are now five such settlements and the army has used this as justification to take direct control of 20% of Hebron, including the Old City, the commercial hub which includes the sacred Ibrahimi Mosque. As a result of the presence of approximately 500 settlers, around 35,000 Palestinians continue to live under direct military occupation facing severe restrictions in their daily lives including movement, economic hardship, limitations on delivery of services, and constant harassment by settlers and soldiers.

For me, Hebron was evocative for another reason; the organisation that I represent and which was one of the organisers of this trip is called Open Shuhada Street. This organisation was started by South African Jewish activists, including Nathan Geffen and Doron Isaacs, who visited Hebron and confronted a situation worse than Apartheid – and which moved them to such an extent that this organisation took root. It wasn’t hard to see why a visit would prompt this response. Shuhada Street was once the main road through the Old City and was filled with shops and markets. It is now completely barred to Palestinian pedestrians so it can be exclusively used by Israeli settlers. Over 500 shop owners woke up to find soldiers kicking them out, or in many cases their shop doors simply welded shut with their merchandise inside. The destruction of the once-vibrant town centre led to another 1,000 shops being forcibly closed.

During our visit we reached a point where our Palestinian guides were allowed no further and had to take a convoluted and much longer route to meet us at the next point. This was just one of the 121 closures, including checkpoints and roadblocks that dot this city in order to restrict the movement of Palestinians. Israeli settlers have no such discomforts. While some of us walked ahead, some in the delegation, including Barney Pityana and Vusi Pikoli, were having none of it. The familiar experience of Apartheid meant that they would never walk where the Palestinians could not. They walked the long road with our guide.

However, a few of us went the short route and it took us along the Ibrahimi Mosque. Here we met two members of the ‘Christian Peacemaker Team’ who monitor the checkpoints in the city in an attempt to influence better treatment of the Palestinians and document any human rights abuses. They told us that during the morning an 11-year-old, on his way to school, had been detained for over an hour, without his parents or any legal representation. When we expressed our horror at the situation in Hebron, their response was, “Yeah, and the sad thing is it just seems to get worse every day…”

The attitude of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), the “most moral army in the world”, to the residents of Hebron is probably best illustrated by the events following the Goldstein massacre. In 1994 US-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein open fired with an assault rifle on hundreds of Palestinians who were crammed into the Ibrahimi Mosque during Ramadan. He murdered 29 worshippers and injured over a 100 more before being overpowered and beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. Despite the fact the man who stopped Goldstein died of his wounds, the Israeli army held hundreds in detention to determine Goldstein’s killer while also shutting down the mosque entirely. When the mosque was eventually reopened, Palestinians walked in to find that that military had given half the mosque to the settlers, separating each from the other with a wall. This, of course, also led to the Palestinians’ evening call to prayer being banned, as it supposedly disturbed their new settler neighbours.

In any situation of severe repression, there is always hope through the creativity, strength, resilience and humanity of oppressed people. Hebron was no different. We met with members of Youth Against Settlements (YAS) – a group of young activists who organise non-violent resistance through protests and education. They showed us a beautiful kindergarten they’d built for young children. The wall of the playschool was recently vandalised by the settlers – a frequent occurrence – and so they got the children to paint over it with their hand prints and paint something beautiful there instead.

It was a symbolic process to show that the humanity of children can triumph over the bigotry of occupation. A video produced by YAS in 2013 (available on YouTube) graphically illustrated to us the incidents of abuse by settlers and soldiers including numerous arrests of children. The footage shows the resistance of Palestinians in never backing down, but never raising a finger despite being violently beaten by settlers with the connivance of the Israeli soldiers. Laying a finger on a soldier or a settler will result in an immediate minimum six-month jail sentence. When we watched a clip of our guide being arrested, he casually said, “Here they arrest me. They’re just trying scare us, but we don’t care.”

In the last four years I’ve been involved on various levels in Palestine solidarity activism. Despite being constantly confronted with the horrific news, footage and statistics on the plight of the Palestinians, out of naivete I had convinced myself things were improving. Most international activists will tell you a generally optimistic story about a discernible shift in representations of the situation towards the Palestinian side. A few months ago during the Gaza conflict millions of people around the world marched in solidarity with the Palestinians, including over a 100,000 in Cape Town. Even in the United States mainstream media outlets are finally having to somewhat moderate their pro-Israel bias and community activists in Oakland have managed to turn away an Israeli cargo ship before reaching its port of destination.

Perhaps the most promising development, however, is the surge in support for progressive Jewish groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace and Open Hilel, that indicate the widespread and increasing rejection of Israel’s human rights abuses and ethnically exclusive regime by much of the Jewish youth in the US. With this in mind I was upbeat about my trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank, not just because I would be travelling with inspiring South Africans such as Pikoli and Pityana. Instead I experienced a week of nausea, tears, depression and inspiration; as our delegation witnessed what was actually happening on the ground.

As one of the co-organisers of the South African delegation, I’d been set the task of forming a strategy for clearing Ben-Gurion Airport, notorious for its security interrogations that can involve being forced to give up your Gmail password if you have an Arabic name. When we arrived at the airport early on Wednesday morning, immigration was fortunately quiet with just a few Shin-bet (Israeli security police) officials hanging around. Despite an earlier decision to clear immigration as a group, Pikoli took it upon himself to dash on through alone and no doubt through his MK training, cleared immigration with no problems.

However, when we made our way up to the passport booth, Pityana went first, only to soon be led away across the hall. To my relief we were informed that because we were from “Africa” we all needed to have a simple temperature scan for Ebola. While I was tempted to point out that Cape Town was barely further away from West Africa than Israel was, I didn’t want to blow the favourable situation where they were more focused on us potentially bringing in Ebola than the fact that we were to spend time in the West Bank, meeting with Palestinian activists and politicians. However, our luck quickly ran out as Adila Hassim, by dint of her Muslim name, and her brownish skin, was flagged for interrogation. The first and last question the border official asked her was “What is your father’s name?” before she was whisked off to undergo a security check. This “security check” lasted an excruciating four hours before she was finally let through.

In contrast to Hebron, Tel Aviv is a beautiful city with mostly beautiful streets with wide pavements, public parks, and endless cafes. However, while the Palestinian population makes up around 20% of Israel’s population, I don’t think I saw a single one in Tel Aviv, except maybe once at a construction site we passed. Indeed Tel Aviv felt almost like a thriving European city, just much less cosmopolitan. Jerusalem was where we started to encounter some of Israel’s Palestinians or Palestinian Jerusalemites as they’re known.

When Israel annexed Jerusalem in 1967 it faced the unfortunate possibility of having to absorb around 66,000 Palestinian residents (now around 250,000). Israel’s objective has always been to gain maximum land (and thus its boundaries have never been defined) with a minimum number of Palestinians. Giving Palestinians citizenship would subject Israel to what they call the “demographic threat” – a racist euphemism that seeks to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority. Instead Palestinian Jerusalemites were given blue residency permits: a right to stay without any democratic rights. Their homes are often occupied by settlers, they are almost always refused building permission and their movement is restricted – all measures that Israel hoped would force Palestinians to leave.

While driving around, we noticed that all the houses in some neighbourhoods had big black water tanks on the top of them. Our guide pointed out to us that this was the easiest way of telling which neighbourhoods were Palestinian. The tanks are there for the dry season because when there are water shortages the Palestinian ‘residents’ get their water cut first. These tanks are not exclusive to East Jerusalem though; as we found out in Hebron, they can be targets for IDF and settler shooting practice. Getting their water cut off is simply another way in which racial segregation operates in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians residents’ taxes make up 18% of the City’s budget, but where they receive just 10% of the services. Garbage piles were a common sight in all Palestinian areas.

Nowhere is the disparity in water equality starker than in the Jordan Valley. As the most fertile region of the West Bank, it’s not surprising that Israel has designated 88% of it as Area C essentially putting it under complete control of the Israeli military. Israeli settlers receive on average 480 litres per day compared to the 200 used by other Isrealis; 80 for the Palestinians; and the measly 20 the Bedoiuns are able to afford. Obviously the Palestinians have to get their water from Israel, as since it is a resource, it’s a security concern and an expensive one too. Palestinians generally pay three NIS per litre, but in Area C it can be as high as 50. Settlers sometimes pay one NIS, but often pay nothing and we were shocked to find out that almost every settlement has a swimming pool; apparently a necessity for them.

While driving through the valley we noticed the odd tin shack. These shacks are the homes of the small Bedouin population of Area C, barely tolerated by the Israeli military, who often bulldoze down these shacks. Military officials have banned the Bedouins from using permanent materials for their houses to make this a more simple process, but when questioned about it, they responded that there’s nothing wrong with it, because “Bedouins like living in shacks”. We eventually stopped off to view a sizeable Israeli well next to a now-dry Palestinian one. It was here where we noticed that all the caves in the mountains were filled with barbed wire. The shepherds in the nearby Bedouin village previously used the caves as shelter at night as they travelled to better pastures. However, with the sealing of the caves, this is no longer possible. But we shouldn’t be too hard on the military; they had to seal off the caves since “terrorists might use them”.

We had late lunch at the village of az-Zubaidat, home to around 1,900 Palestinians. The villagers are all descendants of a Bedouin tribe that was cleansed out of Be’er Sheva in 1948, but had managed to eke out a life for themselves in the Jordan Valley. However, when Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, it confiscated 990 acres of the village land for a military base that later became the Settlement of Argaman. Many of the village’s young children, some as young as 13, work the settlement’s crops for well below the minimum wage, earning around R150 a day (sound familiar?) and receive no social security or health benefits from their Israeli employers, and have no job security. They comprise just a few of the 1,000 child labourers in the West Bank who work the fields instead of going to school because they believe they’ll end up there anyway. The unemployment rate of their surrounding region is the highest in the West Bank at 19%.

Our lunch in az-Zubaidat was Maqluba, a traditional Palestinian dish, which was to be my favourite meal of the trip – my recent attempts at this meal were disastrous. After lunch our guide Chris Whitman introduced us to the Mayor of the az-Zubaidat, Abu Osama, whose home we were staying in. Chris pointed out to us the boundary of Area C (the village is considered Area B), which was about five metres from Abu Osama’s house. There were several dead date trees beyond it that Chris said the military had recently destroyed. They had told Abu Osama to cut them down or give them to the settlement, but he did neither. However, Abu Osama had planted some more, which Chris is explained was simply an “up yours to the Israelis” and just another simple act of sumud (steadfastness) carried out by the occupied population.

Abu Osama addressed us in warm broken English, but he quickly became upset as he told his story of occupation. However, his anguish was broken with joy when a teenage boy interrupted him to correct his English. He smiled and pulled his son over to him and kissed him on the head (despite the boy’s obvious embarrassment) telling us that the boy was his son, and clearly proud of his son’s education. When Abu Osama was finished he asked if we had any questions, but was met with a deafening silence. Where previously we had fired off questions to Chris (who hails from the US), we were all frozen by this sudden confrontation with the suffering of real people in Palestine. There was nothing we could really say or ask, but we felt someone had to say something if just out of politeness. Vuyiseka eventually put her hand and I felt a sense of relief among the group; however, she just managed a thank you to Abu Osama for hosting us before the tears started rolling down. It didn’t take long for half of us to join her. Abu Osama was clearly touched by this and he told us this is why Palestinians love South Africans, as we’re always the most affected by the occupation.

The rest of the trip went on in much the same way, as we continued to see and hear about the extent of dehumanisation in the region, culminating with a visit to the circus masquerading as a military court. During one of our many crossings through the obscene traffic caused by Qalandia checkpoint, our driver was losing it. He was a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, but because the wall in Jerusalem annexed his home in Bethlehem, he received a residency permit for Jerusalem. Despite growing up in the West Bank, he made his living driving foreign tourists to religious tourist sites, his blue ID permitting easier travel. However, he had now seen the occupation in a new light and our shock had helped him see these everyday harassments with new eyes. He shouted, “If I lived here I would just leave”, referring to the Palestinians who worked in Jerusalem but had to cross Qalandia every day to get back home across the wall. “How can people live like this? No one can live like this.”

After dealing with the experience of Adila being racially profiled on arrival, there was a great sense of relief when we got on our plane home at Ben-Gurion. Despite almost being taken in for another security check, the South African Embassy had sent staff over to smooth our passage. An argument between the embassy staff and security officials, prompted after I informed them we’d been to Ramallah, eventually culminated in us going home.

My naïve assumptions that our successes in the international community were making a big difference here had been snuffed out, but through interactions with these brave people, we left as a delegation ready to help the Palestinians, and the brave but marginalised Israeli left, in their struggle. As Pikoli said to a group of Palestinians, “We are not here to console you or tell you how to fight your struggle; we’re here to take battle orders from you in how we can assist you.” It became abundantly clear to us on our trip that the Palestinians, despite their incredible courage, cannot win their freedom alone. The international community must isolate Israel and make its occupation costly. That’s why we should all be supporting the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement… just not the pig-headed one. DM