Around the time Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 years in prison and as president he was leading South Africa against apartheid on the path to reconciliation and peace, ironically, Israel was putting in place its brand of apartheid. “Its brand” because apartheid in Israel is not identical to apartheid as practiced in South Africa. However, there are many similarities.
Apartheid means “separation.” In South Africa apartheid entailed the deliberate segregation of people (black, white, colored, Indian) and a prohibition against “mixing.” It also meant the displacement of nonwhites with the attendant theft of land and resources. The appropriate laws and infrastructure reinforced the separation.
Keeping in mind the key word is “separation,” there are two legal systems in Israel: one for Jews and the other for Palestinians. The legal system for Jews is manifested in the settlements infrastructure, which contributes positively to a free society and supported by a military presence.
The legal system for Palestinians is one of restrictions on a population under a brutal military occupation. The permit system used against Palestinians is a stark reminder of the hated “pass laws” of South Africa apartheid. Permits control movement and every aspect of Palestinian life. Checkpoints control the flow of Palestinians trying to get to a job, school or doctor.
Begun in 2002, the wall is appropriately called the separation barrier. Others refer to it as the apartheid wall. It claims to separate the Palestinians from the Israelis but in reality is also separating the Palestinians from other Palestinians. Bethlehem is totally surrounded by the 6-foot wall, an open-air prison.
What is difficult for Westerners to grasp is that the psychological barrier is not new. It has been there all during 40 years of occupation. The psychological barrier is not to “see” the obvious: the impact of an increasingly restrictive closure on Palestinian life, to deny the reality of an entire people struggling for dignity and freedom. For example, the system of modern highways connecting Jewish settlements to Israel proper is off-limits to Palestinians whose comparable roads are hardly usable.
Access to water for Jewish settlements as compared with Palestinian access is a major illustration of disparity with the favorable in favor of the settlers who have plenty of water for their lawns and gardens, while Palestinians may have no running water for weeks. They are forced to purchase water from a trucker.
Of the many expressions of encomium at the death of one of the greatest persons of our time, I find the words of the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Stephen Brislin, simple but compelling: “The greatest way we can acknowledge the life of Nelson Mandela is to strive for the ideals he cherished — freedom, equality and democracy — and to defend those ideals from those who would corrupt them.”
It doesn’t take much soul searching to see the role the U.S. plays in funding the very thing that Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to work against, namely, apartheid. America’s annual $3 billion contributes to the continuation of a brutal military occupation.
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