Imagine living your life as though you were in a cage in your own home; having to prove your humanity and existence constantly at every checkpoint; and having your religious beliefs questioned at every holy site? This is the daily reality for Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied Palestine, where the daily movements and activities of the people are under constant surveillance and scrutiny. I've seen this for myself.
From Ben Gurion Airport I took a taxi driven by a middle-aged Palestinian. He told me that he has witnessed some of the worst brutalities of the Israel Defence Forces in his country. "They steal land, they steal dignity and they steal life," he said, "and they do it with pride and arrogance." It was not until we arrived at the first checkpoint and I saw the high walls separating the Occupied Palestinian Territories from the Zionist entity of Israel that the reality of the apartheid enforced by the state started to sink in. People are separated, as is access to the sites holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, as though these religions have nothing in common.
Israeli apartheid is also visible in the infrastructure — the narrow roads, demolished houses and overcrowded buildings that Palestinians have to live with — as well as the abandoned homes and markets, particularly in the city of Hebron. The Palestinians are not permitted to build, renovate or even provide basic municipal services in their own territories without the written permission of the Israeli government. The streets are filled with Israeli soldiers, monitoring the daily activities of young Palestinians who are usually suspected of illegal activities and thus face unwarranted arrest, often simply for voicing their anger at the ongoing military occupation.
It is evident that many Palestinians are suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder; this is evident in the many who smoke excessively. There are barely any recreation centres to keep young people busy, so they find pleasure in annoying the Israeli occupation forces, either by letting-off fireworks, throwing stones or making loud noises in places where there is a heavy military presence. Many are shot in the process. The bravery and fearlessness of these young Palestinians is scary but commendable at the same time; it reminds me of the 16 June 1976 uprising in Soweto when young Black South Africans took to the streets to display their outrage against apartheid.
The reality that Palestinians are living through in their own land is similar, and maybe even worse than the South African experience of apartheid. The "separation wall" is a highly visible presence of the enforced division.
Religious beliefs that are meant to unite Palestinian Christians and Muslims with Jews are often distorted into manifestations of apartheid. The burial place of Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim), peace be upon him, in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, is a flashpoint between Jews and Muslims. A partition wall has been built inside the mosque to keep the two communities apart. On 25 February 1994, an illegal Jewish settler donned his IDF uniform, picked up his IDF-issue rifle and shot Muslims gathered for the dawn prayer. He killed 29 men and boys — some as young as 12 — and wounded 125 others, before being overpowered and beaten to death.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine has resulted in cultural, social, political and economic divisions, mostly based on racism centred on religious identity. The fact that Muslims, be they Palestinians or foreign tourists, visiting holy sites in Jerusalem and other cities have to prove their Islamic identity is a dehumanising and humiliating act enforced by Israeli soldiers. I was made to feel like a criminal in most parts of Palestine that I visited, and even more so in Israel at the airport where I was strip-searched after a Kifaya (Palestinian scarf) was found in my hand luggage. I was interrogated for almost 30 minutes about my whereabouts, the purpose of my visit and why I had the scarf in my bag. I concluded that Israelis do not want anyone to visit the occupied Palestinian territories; they do not want the world to witness the brutal and inhumane conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live in their own land. They are denying travellers, Palestinian sympathisers and other groups their freedom and the right of affiliation, in as much as they deny Palestinians the international human right to self-determination.
There are many international observers who have gone to Palestine to see and report the conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live. One such group that I encountered in Hebron was the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) which has been there for over 10 years. Such observers have done little to condemn Israel for its military occupation in Hebron and the destruction of life in that part of Palestine. They publish hardly any of their findings on public platforms that are accessible to the international community. Hence, some of the atrocities and Human Rights violations committed by Israel go unnoticed and don't even make it onto the agenda of the UN.
Who can Palestinians rely on for humanitarian aid, justice and the exercise of their right of return to their land? International organisations such as the UN seem to have forgotten about the people of Palestine beyond mere verbal rebukes of the occupying entity. Israel, meanwhile, seems to have no regard for international laws and resolutions and continues to rob Palestinians of their land, dignity and lives with apparent impunity.
It is important that when we claim to pledge solidarity with the Palestinians we understand exactly what that entails. Things are tough for the people of occupied Palestine and our very presence in their land meant much more than we can ever imagine. The apartheid imposed by Israel is more intense than what we are led to believe. Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike are barricaded behind walls meant to keep them away from their land, their birthright, their heritage and their dignity. That is something that we South Africans know all too well.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.