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The Worst Apartheid in Modern History

Wednesday 3 October 2012, by Mustafa Barghouthi

Frederick Douglass, the American orator, writer and social reformer who had escaped from slavery, wrote: "Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave."

What we need to do in Palestine is to develop a better knowledge and understanding of the system of slavery that Israel created, and that some of us do not see, whether out of ignorance, out of fear, or out of a sense of impotence in the face of this reality.

Modern history offers no equivalent to the perniciousness and repressiveness of the racist apartheid system. In the course of seven decades, official Israeli policy built itself on the cumulative products of three processes. The first was the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, which reached its peak in 1948. The second was the longest foreign occupation in history. The third was the apartheid system that is more brutal than that which had existed in South Africa, to which testify the South African freedom fighters that visited us, such as Desmond Tutu.

Not only did Israel create what today amounts to six million Palestinian refugees who are deprived of the right to return, since 1948 it strove to deprive the Palestinians who remained in what became Israel of their land and to turn them into a source of cheap labour that remained under the thumb of military rule until 1966. Following the 1967 war, military rule moved to the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, where military authorities set into motion a drive to steal Palestinian land, expropriate natural resources and deprive the occupied people of essential needs for subsistence.

Today, Israel controls 90 per cent of the water in the West Bank. It allows illegal settlements to consume 2,400 cubic metres of water per person per year, compared to less than 50 cubic metres of water per year per person for Palestinians. In other words, Israeli settlers are entitled to 48 times more water than Palestinians in the West Bank.

To add insult to injury, Israel forces the Palestinians to pay twice as much as Israelis do for the water and electricity they consume.

Consider, too, that per capita income in Israel is $32,000, as compared to less than $1,500 for Palestinians. Nevertheless, thanks to the Oslo Accords, the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations and the unified customs system, the Palestinians are forced to pay the same prices for goods as the average Israeli who earns 20 times more than they do.

Even at the height of the Jim Crow laws in the US and the apartheid system in South Africa there was nothing like the Israeli road system in the West Bank where many main roads are reserved for Israelis only. Palestinians have to take the long and rugged side roads while Israelis speed to their destinations on the smooth and well-paved highways made for them alone. Moreover, the Wadi Al-Nar road, which is meant for Palestinians and which was recently repaved with the assistance of USAID, suffers a chronic traffic jam at the checkpoint that Palestinians from the northern and central West Bank have to pass through on the way to the southern West Bank, and that the Israeli army can close off at whim should Israeli authorities deem it expedient to sever the West Bank into two.

Conditions are worse for the people of Gaza who have been the object of a six-year long inhuman campaign of collective punishment. In Gaza, water resources are running out and growing contaminated and unfit for human consumption, and frequent and long-lasting electricity cut-offs aggravate the hazards to health and compound the strains caused by shortages in basic needs for subsistence.

But perhaps one of the most telling features of the Israeli apartheid system is Qalqiliya. This city of 45,000 people is surrounded by a wall that is twice the height of the Berlin Wall. It has a single eight-metre wide entrance controlled by an Israeli-manned checkpoint that the army can close off just as any prison warden shuts the doors on the prison’s inmates. Nor is this the only Palestinian town that has been turned into a jail; there are dozens of other towns and villages like it.

The situation in Susiya, a village in the area of Yata in the southern part of the West Bank, is particularly grim these days. The residents of this village, like those in seven other villages, had just been notified that their homes, primary school and their clinic, which is operated by the Palestinian Medical Relief agency, have been designated for demolition and that they, themselves, no longer have a right to remain on this land because the Israel army plans to use it for military training.

Life in the village had not been easy before this. One side is hemmed off by an Israeli-only highway and because of other forbidden roads, students have to trudge over six-kilometres of dirt roads, which turn into pools of mud in the winter, in order to reach their secondary school. A huge pipe passes through the village transporting freshwater from the West Bank to an illegal Israeli settlement that was built on what was once village land. The villagers have to purchase water from mobile tanks at the rate of 27 shekels per litre while the Israeli settlers only pay five shekels a litre for water that is conveniently piped straight into their houses.

I hardly need to mention how many helpless villagers from Susiya were arrested or attacked because they had the audacity to want to remain in their homes.

Apartheid is a system that provides for two different sets of laws for two peoples or ethnic groups on the same land. The Israeli apartheid system prohibits a Palestinian from Jerusalem from living with his wife and family because she is from Ramallah, 16 kilometres away. She does not have the right to join her husband in Jerusalem and if he moved to Ramallah he would lose his citizenship rights and, hence, not only his right to health insurance, for example, but his right to live in Jerusalem where he was born. Meanwhile, under Israeli law, a Jew from any part of the world has the right to obtain citizenship once he sets foot in Lod Airport, and to live anywhere he wants, whether in Israel or in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, which is most likely where the authorities will lure him through grants and other facilities meant to encourage settlers to set up home on expropriated Palestinian land.

The calamity is that the Palestinians have ended up paying the costs for the occupation and the systematic injustices visited upon them by the apartheid system through the fees and taxes that Israel exacts, the rates of which rise as Israeli authorities dictate.

The Israeli government has clearly made up its mind. It has put paid to the two-state solution and opted for an extensive system of apartheid. In the process, it has reduced the idea of a Palestinian state to a freakish "self-governing" entity whose duties entail performing the security services for the occupation in isolated cantons and Bantustans that are cut off from 60 per cent of the West Bank which, in turn, is cut off from Jerusalem and Gaza.

The time has come to let go of the illusions of the past, to acknowledge that Oslo and its protocols have failed and to resolve that the brutal apartheid system cannot continue. As Henry Thoreau said: "Revolt against tyranny is the basis of liberty."

Palestinians will not be free and they will not see economic prosperity until they rebel against the system of Israeli apartheid.

The writer is a member of the Palestinian parliament and secretary-general of the Palestine National Initiative.