As Israel turns 60, there are many reasons why Israelis and its sympathisers might celebrate. But there are also reasons for soul searching and even, perhaps a sense of shame. We recently went on a family visit to Israel and took the time to speak with several activists involved in work for human rights and environmental protection.
In its Declaration of Independence, Israel promised “complete equality of social and political rights” to all its citizens. With regards to its Arab citizens, 20 per cent of the population, this is demonstrably not the case. Whether racist chanting at football matches or restrictions imposed on Arabs wishing to purchase property, they have ample reason to feel that they are the victims of discrimination.
We talked about these issues and others with Hassan Jabarin, the Director of Adalah, The Legal Centre for Minority Rights in Israel. He told us that Arab schools receive only half the government budget per capita that Jewish schools receive. Most of the Negev Bedouin population live in shameful conditions of poverty and deprivation.
Hassan cited a number of petitions to the Supreme Court that the Centre has lodged on matters of access to state budgets in which they successfully argued for equal treatment. The court has directed the government to rectify the inequalities but the latter has been slow to respond.
We were conducted on a tour of West Bank checkpoints by Daphne Banai, a 60-year-old grandmother. She started by telling us that she had come from a right-wing (Betar) family where the mantra was that the only good Arab was a dead Arab. Daphne began to have second thoughts about such beliefs when she first met a Palestinian woman. Daphne is active with a group called Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch, a group of dedicated volunteers who monitor the treatment of Palestinians by the military, particularly at the many checkpoints that separate one town or village in the West Bank from the next.
Our tour started near the Palestinian town of Kalkilya which is now surrounded by an 8m high wall, part of the separation barrier currently under construction. On the outside of the wall a new road has been built from Israel to form a corridor to the Jewish settlement of Alfe Menashe. The corridor goes between the walled town, Kalkilya, on one side and a small Palestinian village, Ras Atiya, also fenced off on the other. When the residents of Ras Atiya wish to go to Kalkilya, their neighbouring commercial centre, they have to pass two checkpoints.
Approaching the Ras Atiya Gate, we noticed a boy with a donkey and cart crossing rough ground nearby to get to the gate. His cart was laden with water cans. Daphne explained that his house, although part of the village was cut off by the fence. Now he was forced to make this cross-country trek just to fetch water.
Daphne said that Israel has taken control of all water supplies in the West Bank, but has failed in its legal obligations to the people whose land it is occupying. The settlers of Alfe Menashe have water for their gardens and swimming pools but Palestinians have to travel to get water for their basic needs. The Supreme Court handed down a ruling here two years ago to move the separation barrier but little has happened.
A military post at the gate controls movement in and out of the village. During perhaps half an hour of watching we saw several instances of harassment. A chicken farmer with a panel van full of week-old chicks was being held up with no explanation given. He had been waiting, he said, for two hours. With his van standing in the heat of the day, his chicks would die.
A school child arrived on a bicycle. He waited at a respectable distance from the sentry point to be called forwards by the soldier on duty. The soldier appeared occupied with something else so the boy waited, visibly shaking. When Daphne called to the soldier to let the boy come forward, only then did the soldier call the boy and allowed him to pass.
Yesh Din (There is a Law) an offshoot of Machsom Watch assists Palestinians to file complaints against settlers and monitors the application of due process to Palestinian defendants in military courts. We spoke to Muki Dagan, one of the group’s volunteers. He told us of unchecked harassment by Jewish settlers of Palestinians, particularly during the olive harvest and of restrictions by the military that often make it impossible for them to work their fields.
Yesh Din found that complaints against settlers were routinely not investigated. It has now succeeded in substantially increasing the number of indictments against settlers.
During its first 20 years of existence, Israel won the respect and admiration of much of the world for its achievements. Then came the 1967 war and its aftermath - the occupation of territory that was home to some three million Palestinians. That ongoing occupation is eroding the social values that Israel’s founders believed in. Now, multiple challenges face those people who have not lost faith in a better society.
Some of the activists with whom we spoke believe the window of opportunity for a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine, side by side) may already have been lost. Reviving those hopes depends on good will from both sides - on mutual recognition of each others right to exist in an environment of mutual respect and security.
Israel for its part has a very strong deck from which it can lead, its effective hold on the Palestinian territories and its ability to surrender that hold and relinquish the settlements. Powerful forces within Israel will resist any suggestion of a withdrawal under any circumstances. But for Israel it may be a question of retaining its sanity or retaining its settlements.