Two weeks in Palestine and Israel

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This summer, I was fortunate enough to attend the first Independent Jewish Voices solidarity tour of Palestine and Israel. This was a very emotional and educational trip, and I feel compelled to share what I saw.

In East Jerusalem, many families live under the fear of house demolitions. The Israeli state uses a variety of legal and quasi-legal means to evict Palestinians. For example, Palestinians living in Arab neighbourhoods are denied building permits, so those who build houses or additions in response to overcrowding can have their houses demolished and their land expropriated. We can see this not just in East Jerusalem but also in Tel Aviv-Jaffa where Palestinian houses are slowly being demolished to make room for settlers and expensive houses overlooking the Mediterranean.

Another Winnipegger recently visited a Bedouin village of 300 people in the Negev region of southern Israel, which was demolished a week later. In addition to the Israeli state and municipal governments, settlers also use a variety of methods to take over Palestinian houses. Palestinians living in East Jerusalem pay taxes to the municipal government, however Arab neighbourhoods are allocated much less in terms of municipal services. Driving through East Jerusalem, one can see a sudden drastic improvement in the state of infrastructure and services whenever one passes by a Jewish settlement.

In the occupied territories, the situation is even worse. Palestinians are cut off from one another and often from their land, through a system of walls, checkpoints and Israeli-only roads connecting settlements. Those living near settlements are subjected to settler violence, including assault and attacks on their shops and olive trees. These settlers are protected by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) while they engage in these activities. In Hebron, the IDF “sanitizes” the streets of Palestinians, and those living on one of these streets will have their front doors welded shut and must use creative means to even exit their house — often involving climbing over rooftops. The IDF also engages in arbitrary searches and arrests across the West Bank, and their operations are often planned to cause maximum disruption in the lives of Palestinians.

Simply put, what I saw was apartheid as defined in international law . The word “occupation” simply doesn’t do the situation justice, given the racism and the various legal means with which to oppress the Arab population in what is known as “Israel proper” as well as the denial of the right to return home from Palestinian refugee camps. It’s no wonder that apologists for the Israeli state get upset when the term “Israeli apartheid” is used — it is not only a powerful term, but it is an accurate description of the realities in Israel and Palestine.

Despite all this oppression, there is a ray of hope in the resistance to the occupation. In the West Bank, communities such as Bilin and Nablus have active popular committees, which engage in community support and peaceful protest. Women in the refugee camps near Bethlehem met up for the first time while we were there, working towards community economic development through small scale embroidery. In a situation of apartheid, settlements and an economy ravaged by decades of occupation, simply surviving and not leaving is an act of resistance, one made easier by any community organization which can make life marginally less intolerable.

While the Israeli state continues to oppress Palestinians, there are many Israelis fighting this injustice. There is a movement of people who refuse to serve in the occupation forces of the IDF, and among those that do serve, many return to tell their stories of the horrible actions they have witnessed and engaged in through Breaking the Silence, an Israeli veterans organization. Peace Now’s Settlement Watch monitors illegal settlements as they pop up in the West Bank. The Coalition of Women for Peace researches who profits from the occupation in order to support the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Israelis and Palestinians work together against house demolitions in East Jerusalem. Our delegation participated in a rally in Silwan, which helped force the government to stop the demolition of 22 houses. Unfortunately, from what I saw, there is a colonialist mentality and creeping fascism within Israel that makes organizing difficult.

The international community can contribute to the resistance as well. The International Solidarity Movement supports Palestinians in their struggles on the ground and sometimes pays a heavy price, such as the murders of Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall or the eye lost by an ISM activist to an IDF tear gas container a couple months ago.

In my opinion, the BDS campaign has accomplished more in the past five years than the boycott against South Africa accomplished in its first twenty. As the Canadian and Manitoba governments are heavily complicit in Israeli apartheid, especially under the neoconservative Harper government, there is much which can be done in Canada to end this complicity.

What we are witnessing in Israel and Palestine is apartheid. However, it is still possible for Palestinians, Israelis and the international movement to resist apartheid together and one day make the dream of peace and justice in Palestine and Israel a reality.

Brian Latour is a student at the University of Manitoba, a member of the Canada-Palestine Support Network and Students Against Israeli Apartheid at the U of M, and an organizer for Israeli Apartheid Week in Winnipeg.