It was a scene reminiscent of one of the darkest chapters in American history: Dozens of locals were enjoying a swim in a community pool, their skin gleaming brown and olive in the sun, when suddenly white intruders arrived, accompanied by men with guns. The armed men ordered the local population out of the pool so that the white people could bathe in peace. Under threat of violence, the locals complied. The uninvited visitors descended into the cool water, untouched and unbothered by the native population.
This might have been some long-forgotten incident from the Jim Crow American South, but it happened this spring, near the West Bank municipality of Yatta, when Israeli soldiers came to the village pool and ordered the Palestinian bathers out of the water. The April 2015 incident, documented by the respected Israeli human rights group, B’tselem, was all the more striking in that it occurred in “Area A,” the 18 percent of the West Bank that is supposedly sovereign Palestinian land. (Area C, under full Israeli military control, takes up 60 percent; Area B, joint Israel-Palestinian control, the remaining 22 percent.)
Just as important, the pool incident added another stark example of aggressive Israeli settlers’ increasingly brazen and domineering treatment of Palestinians under military occupation. It is such incidents as these that bring words like “apartheid” and “Jim Crow” into the debate about the future of Israel and the Palestinians.
At a moment when the world’s attention is turned to other problems in the Middle East, the long-suffering “peace process” seems to have expired altogether. But as successive U.S. governments have recognized, it is not just the fact of settlements, it is the attitudes and actions of the settlers themselves, particularly the hard core determined to force Palestinians out of the West Bank altogether, that have helped to make the process of peacemaking all but impossible.
The militant settlers may not represent a majority of Israeli opinion, but the steady colonization of Palestinian lands by Israel’s unrelenting settlement project, supported by numerous Israeli government incentives and backed by its army and security services, is the force that undermines a just peace again and again. That the recently reelected government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heavily indebted to settlers for support makes the situation all that much worse.
Last month, as I traveled through the West Bank, perhaps my 15th such journey to the Holy Land over the last 20 years, the separate and unequal reality between settlers and occupied Palestinians was more stark than ever.
Twenty minutes out of Jerusalem, I look east toward Efrat, a settlement that now stretches for nearly two miles, with rows of white trailers at its southern edge— soon to be incorporated into the expanding settlement. This is what the sharp rise in recent settlement housing construction looks like on the ground.
I recall my first trip, shortly after the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn in 1993. Then barely 110,000 Israeli settlers inhabited West Bank Palestinian lands. Israel had begun to build special highways for the exclusive use of settlers and VIPs. At the time I was confused—why put these roads on lands supposedly set aside for a Palestinian state? It didn’t occur to me then that this was part of a long-range plan, despite the “peace process,” to colonize “Judea and Samaria” with heavy financial incentives for Israelis to move beyond the Green Line, thus making evacuation of the settlements ever harder.
We ride south down Highway 60, on a portion that bars West Bank Palestinians, heading toward the vineyards of Hebron grapes and the old city just beyond. For years, as an experiment, I would challenge myself to drive for an entire minute without seeing some evidence of Israel’s settlement project. Each year it became more difficult; now there’s no point to the game: 380,000 settlers inhabit the West Bank. Eighteen settlements directly surround East Jerusalem, where an estimated 300,000 more settlers live, virtually cutting off the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital from the rest of the West Bank. And the networks of checkpoints, barriers, military bases and exclusive roads, like the one we’re traveling on, are entrenched, normalized facts of life on the occupied ground. They are ostensibly a reaction to terrorism by Palestinian groups, but even when violent resistance subsides, the occupation tightens its grip.
There is nothing subtle or normalized about the grim separation in the old city of Hebron. Here in H-2, a portion of Hebron where 1,500 soldiers protect some 500 settlers in a city of 170,000 Palestinians, steel nets rise above the old Arab market to protect vendors from the debris—bottles, bags of feces, metal objects, plastic chairs—that the settlers hurl down from above. The enmity here dates back to at least 1929, when Palestinians massacred Jews in riots sparked by European Jewish emigration to Palestine. Many of the Jewish survivors credited other Palestinians with saving their lives, and generations later, their descendants pointed out that today’s extremist settlers, many from Brooklyn, have no connection to the families of 1929. They called for removal of the Hebron settlements.
Instead, under the H-2 agreement, part of the “peace process” and signed by the Palestinian Authority, some 120 military checkpoints divide Palestinians from settlers. The once-bustling Shuhada Street has been closed by the army, and shopkeepers’ doors welded shut; some of the residents who used to passed through these shops to get home in this hilly city must now use ladders or ropes. Nearby, we saw 16-foot-high concrete slabs wedged into a long-trodden path between a 92-year-old imam’s home and his mosque; now he must walk nearly a mile. Just beyond, the army declared a play area for Palestinian children off limits. As we walked past it, we gazed at long parallel white lines in the asphalt. The place is now a parking lot for settler buses.
Two hundred meters away, we pass through two heavily fortified checkpoints, finally entering the Ibrahimi Mosque, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where 60 percent of the mosque has become a synagogue. A pile of plastic rugs marks the entrance to accommodate Israeli officials who may enter the mosque at any time, but who refuse to remove their shoes. Hence mosque attendants place the rugs along their path, so as to preserve the mosque’s sanctity.
A journey to the West Bank (to say nothing of Gaza) is, for me, always a sobering re-acquaintance with the actual facts on the ground. Over the years, my many months in a would-be Palestine have revealed a complex system of domination and confinement. Random decisions by an occupying army seal buildings shut, erect “surprise” blockades in the road, and evict village swimmers from their own pool. On average, here, one Palestinian child has died every three to four days for the last 14 years. Here, youths as young as 14 who throw stones against the occupation can go to prison for 20 years. Here, one population sits in hilltop homes, protected by one of the worlds’ most advanced armies, while the other is subjected to frequent night raids by that army—so much so that 40 percent of the adult male population has spent time in prison. In this system, one people’s religion and special yellow license plates zip them through the fast lane at checkpoint kiosks, while the other must wait, sometimes for hours, submitting to humiliating inspection of their documents while snipers watch their every move. Here, one people’s “Civil Administration” can suddenly declare the other people’s town to be a historic archeological site, prompting the authorities to evict all the villagers, who move into tents nearby. Here, officials segregated the bus lines, recalling the struggles for civil rights in the American South, before an international furor forced them to hastily withdraw their plans.
It is not for no reason that comparisons to apartheid and Jim Crow have become more common.
Against these facts, it is dizzying to consider the accusations of bias, double standards, and even anti-Semitism lodged by Israel’s staunchest defenders against critics of such behavior. “We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the state of Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in May, accusing critics of casting Israel as “the focus of all evil in the world.” Two weeks later, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the bankroller of settlements, of Netanyahu, of the right-wing free newspaper that is now the most popular in Israel, and of numerous Republican presidential candidates, convened a closed meeting of donors in his Las Vegas casino. The group reportedly raised at least $20 million, much of it to fight the “delegitimization” of Israel by its critics, especially the growing BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement.
Weighed against reality, one wonders how long before these accusations of bias and anti-Semitism will be seen as anything but a desperate deflection strategy by wealthy, disconnected billionaires and their hired political charges in Tel Aviv, Washington, and throughout the entire Republican presidential primary field. (The latest: Donald Trump, who modestly declares that “no one but Donald Trump will save Israel.”)
Yet no matter how entrenched it may seem, no matter how well funded its instruments of distraction, a system such as Israel’s domination of the Palestinians cannot stand indefinitely. Palestinians, with none of Israel’s firepower or its influence with Washington, are now making inroads with the international community. The Palestinian Authority’s unilateral move to achieve statehood in the United Nations now has the support of 138 nations. Its membership in the International Criminal Court could lead to war crimes charges against Israel. These, along with its threats, however hollow, to suspend joint security cooperation in the West Bank, are all efforts to pressure Israel into ending the occupation.
The greater momentum, however is with the campaign of nonviolent direct confrontation of Israel by Palestinian civil society and its international supporters. The BDS campaign has made significant symbolic gains in recent years, as scientists including Stephen Hawking, artists like Roger Waters and Lauryn Hill, European trade unions, and religious groups like the Presbyterian Church USA, have chosen to observe a cultural or academic boycott of Israel, or to divest of companies like Caterpillar, maker of Israeli bulldozers that raze Palestinian houses and olive groves. BDS now represents “a strategic threat of the first order,” according to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. At this point the threat is in BDS’s moral challenge to Israel, rather than its economic clout. Yet maintaining the status quo, a Rand Corporation analysis recently declared, is costing Israel $15 billion per year, while an end to the occupation and a resolution to the conflict could provide an additional benefit, to Israelis and Palestinians, of $173 billion over 10 years.
In the end, however, it is not money, but a sense of moral power that is fueling the Palestinian nonviolent resistance. “They are so worried because the BDS is causing moral harm,” Mustafa Barghouti, an opposition leader and a founder of BDS, told me. “It is exposing Israel as a system of Apartheid. And that’s what they are unhappy with.”
At times it seems hard to picture another system replacing the existing one, entrenched as it is. But just north of Hebron, on our way back to Jerusalem, we were afforded a glimpse of the “viable, contiguous” Palestine that the “peace process” has purported to seek. There, amid the nearly unrelenting view of settlements, military surveillance towers, and dividing barriers, the landscape suddenly opened up, revealing long fields of Hebron vineyards, their grapes nearly ready for the market. On the other side of the road, stepped stone terraces of dusky green olives, marching silently up the hillside. Then, a whitewashed village imbedded in a valley, the minaret of its mosque shining in the sunlight, its call to prayer echoing into the hills.
It’s tempting to imagine this landscape writ large, in a nation at peace called Palestine. But my Palestinian guide, who I will only call H., reminds us that the opposite—continued, irrevocable encroachment—is at least as likely. “For now.” He looks out at the rows of Hebron grapevines. “It looks like this for now. Who knows how it will look in the future?”