In his recent piece, “South Africans should visit Israel”, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk implores us to visit “his” country. He makes mention of the “universal truth that knowledge is power” and challenges us to empower ourselves. We are both South Africans who visited Israel and the West Bank last year. It was there that we learned first-hand that, in the case of Israel, knowledge is really what those in power would have us believe. One of us, Bruce Baigrie, has already written about his experiences in Israel and Palestine during a delegation organised by Open Shuhada Street and the Heinrich Boll Institute. The other, Liam Minné, went on a similar expedition although it was funded out of a backpack. Though the scale of these trips differed they both resulted in a similar experience. This was one that exposed the Israel Lenk speaks of as more a figment of the imagination than a location on a map. We feel compelled to share this experience.
Lenk lauds Israel’s technological advances, particularly in the area of irrigation. He speaks of how “Israel uses every precious drop of water to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers that not only feed Israelis but are exported to Europe, Asia and even SA”. He fails however to mention where this water comes from.
In 1982 Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, gained control of the entire water infrastructure of the West Bank from the Israeli Army for a nominal fee of one new Israeli shekel (NIS). Mekorot extracts up to 80% of the water out of the Mountain Aquifer lying under the West Bank. This is then pumped to illegal Israeli settlements and across the green line to Israel proper. The statistics illustrating this theft are clear. Israelis consume on average 200 litres of water per day, Israeli settlers 480 litres and Palestinians a mere 80 litres. What is more shocking however is the site of this exploitation.
On visiting the Jordan Valley, Bruce witnessed dry Palestinian wells next to space-age Israeli irrigation machinery. He was welcomed by Palestinians living in the village of az-Zubeidat. They spoke of how the Israeli Civil Administration refused them permission to build wells on their own land. How they were charged 50NIS a litre of water while the Israeli settlers living on the same land paid 1NIS or nothing. They remarked how pleased they were to meet South Africans who could, in some way, relate to the oppression they lived through. We urge South Africans to go to Israel and the West Bank, if only to witness this water theft first hand.
Jerusalem is the next destination that we are encouraged to visit. We are told it is a holy city where religious sites are “carefully protected and accessible to all faiths”. We find this hard to believe given that there have been 43 recorded hate crime attacks against churches, mosques and monasteries in Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2009. The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s old city is at times a site of anguish, not prayer. Arbitrary rules are regularly imposed on access to the mosque by the Israeli police. While Liam was there he witnessed a raid on the mosque by Israeli extremist Yehuda Glick, the periodic banning of Muslim women entering the Mosque and the banning of Muslim men over 50. These actions could only be described as punitive and draconian. Those who have visited Jerusalem will also easily spot the lacuna in Lenk’s description of the city. That is the division between the predominantly Jewish west and the Arab east.
East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel however has little interest in supporting the Palestinians who now live in a state of citizenship limbo in the east. They are neither fully fledged Israeli citizens nor holders of Palestinian citizenship. They are given the right to stay without any democratic rights. This may be why Israel feels no obligation to provide the area with basic amenities. Walking from the west to east is akin to stepping out of an upper class suburb into a slum. The area is impoverished. Children are particularly affected with 85% living below the poverty line. There are few functioning street lights and the roads are left in disrepair and littered with garbage that is rarely collected.
The education system is equally defunct. In 2012 there was a shortage of at least 1,000 classrooms in East Jerusalem. While speaking of “co-existence” the ambassador fails to mention that the Jewish/Palestinian school named Hand-in-Hand has repeatedly been vandalised and set fire to. The words “There’s no coexisting with cancer” have been sprayed in Hebrew on its walls. What is staggering is not the neglect itself but that Israel’s Supreme Court had already ruled in 2011 that the “violation of the right to equality in education in East Jerusalem is not the plight of the few”. While Lenk extols the virtues of a Supreme Court in Israel, he fails to mention that rulings that promote the rights of Palestinians are readily ignored, even to the court’s own chagrin. On the other hand, house demolition orders and rulings which restrict Palestinian rights are dutifully promulgated.
The ambassador’s suggestion that we take a helicopter flight to witness rocket attacks from Gaza is absurd. We fail to understand the irony in his suggestion that Israel is under constant threat yet we should put ourselves in the precarious position of witnessing it from the sky. We can only think that this frivolity indicates that his invitation is not sincere. He would rather we accept the version of Israel he supplies than have us experience its true nature. We agree that South Africans should visit Israel. There they would experience the perfection of Grand Apartheid that fortunately failed here. Israelis likewise should visit South Africa. If only so they can see the possibility of racial coexistence despite the scars of our past. We would all do well to recognise these scars as the fresh wounds of the Palestinians. DM
Liam Minné is the chairman of Open Shuhada Street. After dabbling in the dream sciences, he is now completing an LLB at the University of Cape Town
Bruce Baigrie has previously served as chairman of the UCT Palestine Solidarity Forum. He has a master’s degree in conservation biology from UCT.