Critical Currents: The Carter challenge

Too many Israelis prefer not to have any contact with Palestinians, not to know about their hardships, not to take any responsibility for their plight.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
Jimmy Carter dared to warn, in the title of his recent book, that the Palestinian-Israeli relationship may be veering toward apartheid. One wonders whether he had any idea what one word could do. His semantic juxtaposition has caused many to bristle and others to lash back. The former president's facts have been questioned, his record queried, his values challenged, his proposals dismissed and his person assailed. This vociferous barrage is itself a timely reminder of what one word should not be allowed to do. By no stretch of the imagination can it offer an excuse for not reading beyond a volume's jacket. Nor may it be used to divert attention from the situation on the ground. Terminology aside, it is vital for anyone concerned with the ongoing conflict to continuously reassess the conditions of Palestinians under Israeli overrule. Despite its apparent relinquishment of civilian authority, Israel has deepened its control over residents of the West Bank and Gaza during the past few years. The diverse measures it employs have one theme in common: to divide Palestinians from each other and to separate them as much as possible from Israelis. Mobility has been severely constrained. Movement within the West Bank has become tortuous: The number of checkpoints has risen from 376 in August 2005 to 534 a month ago. Access to major roads, reserved primarily for settlers, is restricted. Permits to enter Jerusalem, the largest Palestinian population concentration, are barely attainable. The connection with Gaza has been effectively severed. And the security wall has enclosed Palestinians in enclaves that separate them from each other as well as from Israelis. A series of petty annoyances combine to make daily life at best unpredictable and at worst impossible. Cars are arbitrarily stopped for hours. People cannot get to work, pupils to schools or the sick to medical centers on time. Persistent humiliation and harassment - reported only when they reach outrageous heights - are so commonplace as to be an integral part of an increasingly downtrodden existence. THE INHERENT contradictions in the hundreds of military directives that govern Palestinians range from the infuriating to the ludicrous. Israel controls the population register, but Palestinians are denied access to the relevant offices to record personal changes. Israeli traffic laws apply in the territories, but there is no way to pay the fines. Palestinians in Jerusalem pay city taxes but are not privy to basic services. These - and many more - artificial barriers are also designed to prevent human contact. Palestinians can fall in love, but if one of them holds a foreign passport, they can no longer live together. Arab citizens of Israel may marry Palestinians, but not bring them home. Israelis and Palestinians, once able to meet freely, can't see each other without flouting the law. These seemingly minor burdens have broader economic and political meaning. The movement of goods is monitored more closely than that of people (even the traditional zaatar has been confiscated at key crossings). Land expropriations, closures and unbridled provocations have reduced agricultural output. Meager exports do not reach their destination in a timely fashion; imports are sporadic. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank live in abject misery. Politically, the Palestinian Authority is expected to oversee state institutions but is not accorded the status of a sovereign state. The exercise of its limited authority is further impeded by the absence of territorial contiguity. The myriad of Israeli policies that govern everyday Palestinian life today form a dim picture of an intricate system of institutionalized discrimination. Too many Israelis blind themselves to these thoroughly discomforting facts. They prefer not to have any contact with Palestinians, not to know about their hardships, not to take any responsibility for their plight. It is easier to dismiss carefully documented reports or to denounce their purveyors than to come to terms with the implications of the conditions they depict. Some Israelis do admit to the prevalence of injustice. The majority, however, continues to excuse its occurrence in all-embracing security terms. But this argument, however critical, can no longer justify everything. The strangulating effects of often arbitrary restrictions foment animosity and may actually breed violence. Many dictates have nothing whatsoever to do with legitimate defense. The security rationale cannot and should not provide a blanket moral shield: If something is objectionable under normal circumstances, it should be shunned if at all possible. Behind this explanation lies the all too convenient perception that the Palestinians have only themselves to blame for their situation: Their resort to violence and inability to maintain internal order has left Israel with no choice but to impose progressively restrictive measures. Shifting the responsibility to the victim cannot, however, exonerate the perpetrator - there is no symmetry between the two. Ignorance, along with real fears and deep fatigue, has allowed a dangerous inertia to set in. It is ethically untenable, legally unacceptable and practically foolish to continue to ignore the outcome of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories. However uncomfortable, those who truly care about Israel must grapple with the systemic discrimination which is the result of its actions. The precise contours and effects of institutionalized inequality vary from place to place. The purposeful denigration of the other, for whatever reason, goes against the human grain and is totally antithetical to the Jewish tradition. Its negative repercussions corrupt Israeli society and distort its norms. For this reason, if for no other, Israel must do everything possible to liberate the Palestinians, and thereby itself, from the impossible burden of occupation. In the interim, it has a duty to do whatever it can to make Palestinian life bearable. Those who reject Jimmy Carter's comparison can therefore not escape the challenge he poses.