Uri Avnery: A Freedom Ride

By Uri Avnery

Mahatma Gandhi would have loved it. Nelson Mandela would have saluted. Martin Luther King would have been the most excited – it would have reminded him of the old days.

Yesterday, a decree of the Officer Commanding the Central Sector, General Yair Naveh, was about to come into force. It forbade Israeli drivers from giving a ride to Palestinian passengers in the occupied territories. The knitted-Kippah-wearing General, a friend of the settlers, justified this as a vital security necessity. In the past, inhabitants of the West Bank have sometimes reached Israeli territory in Israeli cars.

Israeli peace activists decided that this nauseating order must be protested. Several organizations planned a protest action for the very day it was due to come into force. They organized a "Freedom Ride" of Israeli car-owners who were to enter the West Bank (a criminal offence in itself) and give a ride to local Palestinians, who had volunteered for the action.

An impressive event in the making. Israeli drivers and Palestinian passengers breaking the law openly, facing arrest and trial in a military court.

At the last moment, the general "froze" the order. The demonstration was called off.

The order that was suspended (but not officially rescinded) emitted a strong odor of apartheid. It joins a large number of acts of the occupation authorities that are reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa, such as the systematic building of roads in the West Bank for Israelis only and on which Palestinians are forbidden to travel. Or the "temporary" law that forbids Palestinians in the occupied territories, who have married Israeli citizens, to live with their spouses in Israel. And, most importantly, the Wall, which is officially called "the separation obstacle". In Afrikaans, "apartheid" means separation.

The "vision" of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert amounts to the establishment of a "Palestinian state" that would be nothing more than a string of Palestinian islands in an Israeli sea. It is easy to detect a similarity between the planned enclaves and the "Bantustans" that were set up by the White regime in South Africa – the so-called "homelands" where the Blacks were supposed to enjoy "self-rule" but which really amounted to racist concentration camps.

Because of this, we are right when we use the term "apartheid" in our daily struggle against the occupation. We speak about the "apartheid wall" and "apartheid methods". The order of General Naveh has practically given official sanction to the use of this term. Even institutions that are far from the radical peace camp did relate it to the Apartheid system.

Therefore, the title of former President Jimmy Carter\’s new book is fully justified – "Palestine – Peace not Apartheid." [1] The title aroused the ire of the "friends of Israel" even more than the content of the book itself. How dare he? To compare Israel to the obnoxious racist regime? To allege that the government of Israel is motivated by racism, when all its actions are driven solely by the necessity to defend its citizens against Arab terrorists? (By the way, on the cover of the book there is a photo of a demonstration against the wall that was organized by Gush Shalom and Ta\’ayush. Carter\’s nose points to a poster of ours that says: "The Wall – Jail for Palestinians, Ghetto for Israelis".)

It seems that Carter himself was not completely happy with the use of this term. He has hinted that it was added at the request of the publishers, who thought a provocative title would stimulate publicity. If so, the ploy was successful. The famous Jewish lobby was fully mobilized. Carter was pilloried as an anti-Semite and a liar. The storm around the title displaced any debate about the facts cited in the book, which have not been seriously questioned. The book has not yet appeared in Hebrew.

But when we use the term "Apartheid" to describe the situation, we have to be aware of the fact that the similarity between the Israeli occupation and the White regime in South Africa concerns only the methods, not the substance. This must be made quite clear, so as to prevent grave errors in the analysis of the situation and the conclusions drawn from it.

It is always dangerous to draw analogies with other countries and other times. No two countries and no two situations are exactly the same. Every conflict has its own specific historical roots. Even when the symptoms are the same, the disease may be quite different.

These reservations all apply to comparisons between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the historical conflict between the Whites and the Blacks in South Africa. Suffice it to point out several basic differences:

(a). In SA there was a conflict between Blacks and Whites, but both agreed that the state of South Africa must remain intact- the question was only who would rule it. Almost nobody proposed to partition the country between the Blacks and the Whites.

Our conflict is between two different nations with different national identities, each of which places the highest value on a national state of its own.

(b). In SA, the idea of "separateness" was an instrument of the White minority for the oppression of the Black majority, and the Black population rejected it unanimously. Here, the huge majority of the Palestinians want to be separated from Israel in order to establish a state of their own. The huge majority of Israelis, too, want to be separated from the Palestinians. Separation is the aspiration of the majority on both sides, and the real question is where the border between them should run. On the Israeli side, only the settlers and their allies demand to keep the whole historical area of the country united and object to separation, in order to rob the Palestinians of their land and enlarge the settlements. On the Palestinian side, the Islamic fundamentalists also believe that the whole country is a "waqf" (religious trust) and belongs to Allah, and therefore must not be partitioned.

(c). In SA, a White minority (about 10 percent) ruled over a huge majority of Blacks (78 percent), people of mixed race (7 percent) and Asians (3 percent). Here, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, there are now 5.5 million Jewish-Israelis and an equal number of Palestinian-Arabs (including the 1.4 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel).

(d). The SA economy was based on Black labor and could not possibly have existed without it. Here, the Israeli government has succeeded in excluding the non-Israeli Palestinians almost completely from the Israeli labor market and replacing them with foreign workers.

It is important to point out these fundamental differences in order to prevent grave mistakes in the strategy of the struggle for ending the occupation.

In Israel and abroad there are people who cite this analogy without paying due attention to the essential differences between the two conflicts. Their conclusion: the methods that were so successful against the South African regime can again be applied to the struggle against the occupation – namely, mobilization of world public opinion, an international boycott and isolation.

That is reminiscent of a classical fallacy, which used to be taught in logic classes: an Eskimo knows ice. Ice is transparent. Ice can be chewed. When given a glass of water, which is also transparent, he thinks he can chew it.

There is no doubt that it is essential to arouse international public opinion against the criminal treatment by the occupation authorities of the Palestinian people. We do this every day, just as Jimmy Carter is doing now. However, it must be clear that this is immeasurably more difficult than the campaign that led to the overthrow of the South African regime. One of the reasons: during World War II, the people who later became the rulers of South Africa tried to sabotage the anti-Nazi effort and were imprisoned, and therefore aroused world-wide loathing. Israel is accepted by the world as the "State of the Holocaust Survivors", and therefore arouses overwhelming sympathy.

It is a serious error to think that international public opinion will put an end to the occupation. This will come about when the Israeli public itself is convinced of the need to do so.

There is another important difference between the two conflicts, and this may be more dangerous than any other: in South Africa, no White would have dreamt of ethnic cleansing. Even the racists understood that the country could not exist without the Black population. But in Israel, this goal is under serious consideration, both openly and in secret. One of its main advocates, Avigdor Lieberman, is a member of the government and last week Condoleezza Rice met with him officially. Apartheid is not the worst danger hovering over the heads of the Palestinians. They are menaced by something infinitely worse: "Transfer", which means total expulsion.

Some people in Israel and around the world follow the Apartheid analogy to its logical conclusion: the solution here will be the same as the one in South Africa. There, the Whites surrendered and the Black majority assumed power. The country remained united. Thanks to wise leaders, headed by Nelson Mandela and Frederick Willem de Klerk, this happened without bloodshed.

In Israel, that is a beautiful dream for the end of days. Because of the people involved and their anxieties, it would inevitably turn into a nightmare. In this country there are two peoples with a very strong national consciousness. After 125 years of conflict, there is not the slightest chance that they would live together in one state, share the same government, serve in the same army and pay the same taxes. Economically, technologically and educationally, the gap between the two populations is immense. In such a situation, power relations similar to those in Apartheid South Africa would indeed arise.

In Israel, the demographic demon is lurking. There is an existential angst among the Jews that the demographic balance will change even within the Green Line. Every morning the babies are counted – how many Jewish babies were born during the night, and how many Arab. In a joint state, the discrimination would grow a hundredfold. The drive to dispossess and expel would know no bounds, rampant Jewish settlement activity would flourish, together with the effort to put the Arabs at a disadvantage by all possible means. In short: Hell.

It may be hoped that this situation will change in 50 years. I have no doubt that in the end, a federation between the two states, perhaps including Jordan too, will come about. Yasser Arafat spoke with me about this several times. But neither the Palestinians not the Israelis can afford 50 more years of bloodshed, occupation and creeping ethnic cleansing.

The end of the occupation will come in the framework of peace between the two peoples, who will live in two free neighboring states – Israel and Palestine – with the border between them based on the Green Line. I hope that this will be an open border.

Then – inshallah – Palestinians will freely ride in Israeli cars, and Israelis will ride freely in Palestinian cars. When that time comes, nobody will remember General Yair Naveh, or even his boss, General Dan Halutz. Amen.

-Uri Avnery is an Israeli journalist and a former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom peace bloc.

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