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Lessons of Apartheid and Palestinian popular struggle

May 28, 2014 at 4:28 pm


Chaired by former foreign associate editor of the Guardian, Victoria Brittain, the speakers Mahmoud Zaware and Sami Abou Shehadeh talked about their lives in Israel and the West Bank respectively as they struggle against occupation and apartheid. As the meeting began, the audience and speakers stood for a minute silence, held in memory of Arafat Jaradat, who died in an Israeli jail at the weekend.


Mahmoud Zware is a Palestinian activist and the coordinator of Al-Ma’sara Village Popular Committee as well as one of the founders of Popular Struggle Coordination Committee in Al-Ma’sara village near Bethlehem. He opened the discussion for the evening by looking at how Palestinian popular struggle has developed and responds to the challenges of the occupation in the West Bank. Though Mahmoud comes from a small village outside Bethlehem, his family originates from Jerusalem. As with so many others like him, the Nakba (Palestinian Catastrophe) of 1948 forced the transfer of his grandparents from Jerusalem. Reminding the audience of how history and the occupation have treated Palestinians, he went on to explain that the Nakba continues – today it takes the form of the Apartheid Wall that the Israelis are building within the Palestinian territories as they creep further away from Israel’s ‘borders’ and deeper into Palestinian land. Mahmoud described the purpose of the Wall as attempts by Israel to “separate people from people… people from land”. Emphasising the irony of this situation, he noted that it was easier for him to come to London than it would be to visit Jerusalem.


Turning to look at how the Occupation is being resisted, Mahmoud explained that whilst Palestinians may be under the physical occupation of their land, they refuse to allow their minds to be occupied. It was this strength of people power that he described as the most important factor in the popular struggle of the Palestinian people. It is with the support of people power that movements such as popular committees have begun to develop and organise activities – and it is with the development of such movements, Mahmoud explained, that the Israelis now seem to be on the back foot, not knowing how to deal with such expressions of resistance. One such example was the organisation of an attempt to pull down the apartheid wall on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a result of movements such as these that the Israeli forces are turning towards using live ammunition to dispel protesters at demonstrations. In 2012, to oppose the growth of ‘settler only’ roads, a group of Palestinians descended on such a road and blocked the highway – again Mahmoud says the Israelis had no idea how to handle the situation.

One such movement that has been the result of ‘people power’ is the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign. Mahmoud argued that boycott was an essential part of the toolkit of the struggle. Exemplifying this he explained that some settlements have supermarkets which are open to Palestinians despite the fact that Palestinians have no access to the settlements themselves. Whilst the settlers do not want their presence, they are quite happy to accept their money. In response a large group went to the settlements and called for the boycott of such supermarkets, as the occupation reaps Israel economic rewards.

As settlements continue to grow, they have forced the development of campaigns of sustainability. In the South Hebron Hills, there are a number of Palestinian families living in caves not as a result of natural disasters, but due to the growth of settlements. In response, a project was developed to build homes for these Palestinian families. Despite Benjamin Netanyahu opening the courts on a Saturday to have their homes deemed illegal, using the law and the coverage of the media, the homes were able to stay.

Mahmoud concluded that perhaps the greatest example of apartheid was in Hebron itself, where Palestinian cannot drive cars in the Old City while settlers may. There are checkpoints every 20 metres and for the 450 settlers living there, there are over 2000 soldiers to protect them.  The Ibrahimi Mosque (which has been divided into 2) was closed in 2012 over 200 times for settler only use. Mahmoud asserted that he calls for justice in Palestine not because he is Palestinian, but because he believes in human rights.

Sami Abou Shehadeh is a long time Palestinian activist and is currently a PhD student at Tel Aviv University focussing on Jaffa as an Arab cultural centre during Mandate Palestine, 1920-1948. Sami is a leading activist in the Balad Party and a member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality Council representing Jaffa.  Addressing the issue of apartheid in Israel, as experienced by the Palestinian citizens of Israel, he said that there was in fact something worse than apartheid – had the Palestinians lived under apartheid, then Israel would not have enforced their transfer. He noted that whilst Israel attempts to act like a democracy, it is in fact a colonial movement that wants to be a democracy, but does not act as such.

Living in Jaffa (Jaffa – Tel Aviv), Sami described the historical importance of the city. He explained that before the Nakba, Jaffa had been the most important Palestinian city because of its economic prowess, primarily as a result of the large orange exportation industry. After the Nakba, the city was annexed and became the Arab neighbourhood of Tel Aviv. It is now known as a ‘mixed city’ and is the most important city in Israel today. Despite the city being an official ‘mixed city’, the indigenous Arab population only makes up 5% of inhabitants.

Sami explained that in Israel, 90% of the population live in separation, Jewish Israelis living with one another and Palestinian Israelis living within their own communities. Despite the fact that Tel Aviv is the most modernised city in Israel, it has no Arab population as there has been no emigration to the city by Palestinians. This remains true for younger generations who, though educated and qualified, do not move into the city. Whilst many Palestinians go to work in Jewish cities, all large Israeli cities are 100% Jewish. Sami explained that separation at all levels of life was normal – that people just did not talk about it.

More disturbingly, was the description of the Palestinian community in Israel as a “demographic bomb”. Since the Oslo Accords, Israel identified that the Palestinian community made up some 20% of the population, and since then has described them as such. Netanyahu (at the time a Minister for Economy) said that the West Bank Palestinians did not in fact pose a strategic threat to Israel – the threat came from the “Israeli Arabs”.

With only 10% of the population in Israel living in mixed cities, Jaffa remains something of an anomaly. However, that is where the differences end. Whilst the Palestinian and Jewish communities live side by side, the Palestinians provide the cheap labour whilst their Jewish neighbours are soldiers, perhaps having been drafted to Gaza to “kill (their) family”. Sami said that whilst they may live together, the two communities do not know one another. Education is another example, with three different systems in operation (Palestinian, secular Jewish and religious Jewish), the Palestinian students are not only kept apart from their Jewish counterparts – but are not even allowed to study Palestinian history. Instead they study modern Zionist history learning about Palestinians as the enemy. Stripping the Palestinians of their identity does not stop at history lessons – in Israel the Palestinian citizens are known as the “Arabs of Israel” – their history does not begin until after 1948.

Elucidating the disparities for the two communities further, Sami recounted an example of the differences and difficulties facing Palestinian citizens of Israel, even within a mixed city (such as Jaffa). As a response to the dismantling of settlements in Gaza, Jewish settler leaders developed a plan to “settle in the heart”. They not only wanted to ‘doctrinise’ communities with their religious ideology, they began to plan to build their settler communities within Israel itself. This began with building settlements in mixed cities, and in Jaffa itself they planned to purchase land within the Palestinian community. The purchase of this land would allow for the construction of 20 houses for Jewish settler families. An auction saw the successful purchase of this land by the settler leaders despite huge opposition from the local, indigenous Palestinian community. Opposing this, the Jaffa community took the case to court – though there were a number of legal battles along the way, the case was heard. The judge ruled that the purchase of the land could go through – but momentously also ruled that such purchases in the future should stipulate that “the building was not to be used for racist purposes”.

Concluding the evening, Mahmoud commented that whilst the “West” does not see apartheid in Israel, the reality is that people are distinguished from one another and discriminated against depending upon whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish. Sami noted that whilst apartheid was a useful term because of the connotations it throws up, the reality is that we in fact should use terms such as ethnic cleansing to highlight the gravity of the situation.