Monday, June 25, 2012

Apartheid’s Witnesses

 “When I was young, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand seeing the injustice of apartheid in my home country of South Africa. It became so bad that my husband and I decided we had to leave. We didn’t want to be a part of a country that oppressed its own people. That was 1968,” Rosemary told me. 

“So you decided to come to Israel?” I asked.

“Well, we considered many places—the United States, Europe—but my husband thought it was important that Jews have a state to live peacefully and prosperously. Even then, we were pretty secular, and I felt less strongly about it than him, but we decided to give it a try for a year. We left South Africa, had our first daughter here, he started a law practice…and we stayed. Now, my grandchildren are here and I couldn’t even imagine leaving.”  

Rosemary and I sat on the porch of a Palestinian souvenir shop and sipped sweet tea the shop owner brought us. Across the street, we watched one of Hebron’s 16 urban checkpoints as Israeli soldiers repeatedly turned Palestinians away, forbidding them from crossing into the Israeli part of town where we now sat. Rosemary played with her glass with a forlorn face. 

“It’s awful,” she said, “It makes me sick. I came to Hebron today because I felt I had to see it for myself, and it’s even worse than I’d imagined. People in Israel just don’t know. They don’t allow themselves to know."
Rosemary was one of several Israelis I met during my time in Hebron who felt the military presence within the city, the presence of sometimes hostile settlers, and the imposition of road blocks and checkpoints unnecessarily oppressed Palestinians and infringed upon civil liberties. Another woman, Rebecca, played with the golden charms of the Star of David and Hamsa Hand dangling from her neck as she told me why she regularly visits Palestinian families in the city to check in on them and draw attention to abuses that occur. Despite her conservative religious and Zionist beliefs, she felt a moral obligation to bear witness to the violent abuses committed by Hebron’s settlers.  Her decision has drawn great criticism from her religious community in Jerusalem, yet she still visits Hebron twice per month, sometimes accompanied by a friend, often alone.
Rosemary and Rebecca are part of a larger movement by Jewish Israelis to oppose the most blatant abuses of Occupation. Several Israeli organizations work to draw attention to human rights abuses in the West Bank, including B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, yet the number of open Israeli dissenters still remains a minority. In many parts of the West Bank, Palestinians have still never met a Jewish person who wasn’t working for the Israeli Defense Forces or living in an illegal Israeli settlement,* perpetuating mischaracterizations of all Israelis as unjust aggressors.
As was the case in segregated America and apartheid South Africa, Occupied Palestine has created 2 distinct classes of people with different laws determining freedom or oppression. Resentment seethes in the archetypical city of Hebron, and patiently waits for the right moment to boil over.

*All Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes the International Court of Justice’s ruling.
Note: All names in this post have been changed.

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