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					Israel’s Wall of Shame

Ronnie Kasrils     February, 2004

Ancient Jerusalem is a breathtakingly beautiful city of holy places and
historic walls. The Israeli government is constructing a new wall that
mocks the gods and all human sensitivities as it snakes like a monster, not
only through the eastern suburbs of the city, but throughout the
beleaguered West Bank of Palestine.

Eight metres high – twice the height of the Berlin Wall – its hideous
totalitarian image is a shock to the system. It is separating families,
neighbours, communities, farmlands and destroying the West Bank’s
economy. It will be 730kms in length, will sever East Jerusalem from the
West Bank and reduce Palestinian territory by nearly half the present size.
It splits and encloses the population by alternating wall and steel fencing.
The barrier-system is composed of watch-towers, electric wire, electronic
cameras, buffer zones and ditches.

Opponents have called it an “Apartheid Wall”. It certainly is a Wall of
Shame.

I saw the Wall in the company of our Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Aziz Pahad, who was visiting Palestine at the same time as myself to
discuss with the Palestinian Authority (PA) the hearings on the Wall by
the International Court of Justice at The Hague at which the South
African government is lodging our objections. My visit was in response
to an invitation by my water and forestry counterparts in the Palestinian
Ministry of Agriculture.

Together with Aziz Pahad we visited a home in the East Jerusalem suburb
of Abu Dis, where the gigantic grey-slab edifice blocks out the sun and
dwarfs houses and human beings alike.

An eight metre wall, twice the height of a prison wall, is an obscenity in
anybody’s language and insults the environment and the soul. Imagine
such a monster in your own backyard or alongside your school. Imagine
what it would be like to open your door in the morning to go to work or
the shops and return home in the gloom at the end of the day under its
menacing shadow. Imagine discovering one day that your home is one
side of the wall and your livelihood or place of learning on the other.
Imagine having to walk several kilometers to a checkpoint-gate to gain
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access to your everyday destination, which used to be only a few minutes
away. Imagine your children having to play in its ominous shadow.

That is what we discovered when we visited a typical Palestinian family
in Abu Dis. Their home has become amongst the last in a row on the East
Jerusalem side. The mother is a schoolteacher whose school now lies
behind their house and the Wall in what is no longer Abu Dis but the
West Bank. Born in East Jerusalem she carries a document which
identifies her as an “Israeli Arab” - a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship -
who can therefore stay where she resides. Her husband’s document shows
his birthplace at Ramallah. His day’s of staying with his wife and
children, in the home which he built long ago, are consequently
numbered. They are closely watched by the Israeli military whose
soldiers often park in the street and goad them. The authorities have files
on everybody, just waiting to enforce orders to clear out undesireables
like him. It is all reminiscent of the way the pass laws and group areas
act operated to separate people and families in apartheid South Africa -
minus the Wall. We take tea with the couple, while the children watch
TV, and are amazed at how cheerful and full of humour they remain.

Each day our delegation travelled through Israel’s military check-points
under the protection of South Africa’s diplomatic mission in order to visit
the seat of the PA in Ramallah and other beleaguered towns.

Our diplomatic status meant we did not suffer the endless delays and
humiliation of the Palestinian people waiting for hours to pass through
those check-points, where as the world has come to know pregnant
women have died in labour. For us it was a reversion to the bad old days
of Apartheid repression being scrutinised by the heavily armed Israeli
soldiers, our driver having to produce documentation and explain the
purpose of our visit.

The Israeli army of occupation controls and observes all movement from
armoured vehicles along the roads, watch-towers and fortified posts.
Each town is ringed by check-points, every village overlooked by an
illegal settlement accessed by exclusive highways barred to Palestinians.
I have never been in a place where ones mood can swing so greatly
between depression and elation owing to the oppressive occupation on the
one hand and the inspirational landscape and people on the other.

The West Bank is stunningly beautiful and the changing view lifts the
spirits. A mere 110 kms in length and some forty kms wide, home to
over two million Palestinians, it ranges from below sea-level in the desert
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area of Jericho and the Dead Sea, through Karoo type scrub to
Mediterranean and sub-tropical climatic zones. Impressive herds of goats
and sheep, stunning varieties of fruit and vegetables attest to the fertility
of the land and the skills of an agricultural community that has tilled this
soil for centuries.

The area is blessed with quality sources of water, from the Jordan River
Valley to the West Bank acquifer system. From biblical times the land,
the water, the people had made possible the emergence of the ancient
towns, the centers of dynamic trade and learning.

It was on the basis of a thriving agricultural economy that modern
Palestinian society had evolved, with its educated middle class and
vibrant secularism.

Despite the loss of land and livelihood in the catastrophes of 1948, 1967
and the present military occupation, agricultural activities manage to
remind one of the bounty that made Palestinian hospitality so renowned.
Even in Arafat’s bombed-out lodgings a cheerful meal is rustled up for us
although he partakes very sparingly. He is a charming and caring host
and remains amazingly well and steadfast in his courage. Not many a
human being could put up with his confinement at Ramallah under the
most difficult and dangerous conditions. He is a symbol of hope to his
people and to all who believe in the eternal quest for freedom and justice.

Given the land’s fertility it is no surprise that the strategic hill-tops and
water sources are dominated by the illegal Israeli settlements. The
Palestinian rights to the waters of the Jordan have been taken from them.
They cannot even deepen their wells without permission from the Israeli
military, which is seldom granted. Israel appropriates 80% of West Bank
water for itself and each Israeli citizen consumes three times more water
per capita than Palestinians. Those in the illegal settlements take nine
times as much.

As we drive out of Ramallah and come to a halt at an intersection to one
of those settlements, hyped-up zealots spot us and spit at the South
African flag on our car and make obscene gestures.

My delegation’s discussions with our PA counterparts focussed on water,
irrigation and forestry sectors and in particular South Africa’s experience
in negotiations around international shared water rights. This is crucial to
the plight of the Palestinians given Israel’s illegal appropriation of their
vital water resources. South Africa’s progress at arriving at equitable
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agreements over shared water resources with neighbouring countries and
the use of such agreements as a catalyst for co-operation and peace, has
greatly impressed them. We ourselves can learn much from the
Palestinians about water harvesting and utilization of ground water in
which they have the expertise of centuries. I was consequently very
proud to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with my counterparts
relating to important areas of co-operation which we are determined to
implement - as abnormal as the current situation is.

With regard to environmental and afforestation issues the Palestinians can
do with support. At the last estimate over 700 000 olive and citrus trees
had been destroyed by Israeli measures. The completion of the Wall will
raise the figure to over one million.

I could write much about the Palestinian people, how full of courage and
humour they are in the face of adversity. Suffice to quote an old farmer
who told us his people are like the olive tree. You can uproot it. You can
burn it. You may think you have destroyed it. The shoots always
reappear.

The land, the water, the people – the words kept running through my
mind as we engaged in briefings and debates, not only with
representatives of the PA, but members of Palestinian civil society and
activists from the Israeli peace camp. Did Zionism equate with racism
and apartheid? Was the West Bank being turned into a Bantustan? Was
the two-state solution at all worth striving for given Sharon’s sinister
plans?

A political scientist from Birzeit University, outside Ramallah, opined
that she did not like to apply political symbolism from one country to
another. The Israeli activists argued that the theoretical debates about
Zionism were futile. The older amongst them explained they had spent a
lifetime in endless discussion. Better to focus on practical activity such
as ending the occupation and building alliances with Zionists and non-
Zionists, Israelis and Palestinians alike. A young Palestinian with Israeli
citizenship, who was part of the Israeli group, argued that for her it was
essential to recognise 1948 as the beginning of the conflict, rather than
1967. She was for the two-state solution but hoped one day to see a unitry
state. The majority I spoke to supported the goal of two states, as long as
the Palestinian state was sovereign, independent and on contiguous
territory occupying the pre-July 1967 borders. None more so than Yasser
Arafat and the PA who have long expressed recognition of Israel’s right
to existence. He remains ready to resume negotiations.
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The land, the water, the people – the words kept running through my
mind as though on a loop. Wherever colonial conquest occurred the
indigenous people were vanquished by superior military might,
dispossessed of land, water and rights, their economic livelihood
destroyed to be replaced by a settler economy. Those that survived
extinction or dispersal were concentrated into reserves where they
became sources of cheap labour for farms, factories and mines.

In South Africa the process took three centuries before the establishment
of the apartheid system. The wars of resistance in that period are also
known as the wars of dispossession. The Zionist project of creating an
exclusive Jewish state in Palestine, based on questionable biblical claims,
started slowly during the early years of the twentieth century. It was the
decade before the Second World War and the results of the Nazi
holocaust that saw Zionist settlement accelerating, gun in hand, and the
war of 1948-49 leading to the establishment of the State of Israel. The
dispossession, dispersion and domination of the Palestinian people has
taken place through a relatively swift and extremely violent six decades
and is not yet complete.

Sharon’s actions show the process is now poised on a final, quite
unilateral, enclosure of the people with the shattering of Palestinian
society and its liberation movement as the objective. We must not be
fooled by Sharon’s statement of unilateral withdrawal and token
dismantling of some settlements. He is leaving a huge prison in place in
which the people will be concentrated within various enclosures of
concrete wall and steel barrier fencing.

The Wall is not simply a security barrier between two peoples and
territories, vital for Israel’s survival. It is an “Apartheid Wall” separating
two peoples. It is more than that, however, because it annexes more land
and is part of the process of territorial acquisition that began even prior to
1948. As it snakes its way ominously through the West Bank, often
many kilometres within the Green Line – the internationally recognized
border – the barrier gobbles-up more and more productive farmland and
acquifers, isolates and encages towns and villages from one another and
will hi-jack almost 45% of West Bank territory. Either the wall or a huge
double fence and ditch barrier with buffer zones and electronic
paraphernalia ten to twenty kilometres west of the River Jordan and
running parallel to it from north to south will complete the enclosure. It is
this huge swathe of land that lopes off so much of West Bank territory
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and even under former Israeli Premier Barak’s so-called “generous offer”
was to have been under Israeli military control.

The West Bank with the miniscule Gaza Strip constitutes the 22% of the
Palestinian state of the Oslo Agreement and the 1967 borders. Sharon’s
Wall of Shame destroys any vestige of that. What is left is not much more
than 12% of biblical Palestine. The West Bank will be divided into 16
isolated enclaves or disconnected pockets. The Mayor of Qalqilia calls
his town, enclosed on three sides by the Wall and a steel fence on the
other - the chicken coop. Already most of the town’s shops have closed,
once prospering farmers are ruined, seven thousand of Qalqilia’s 60,000
citizens have emigrated and 20,000 are unemployed.

South Africa’s so-called native reserves and later bantustans were not
enclosed by fences never mind hidden behind a gigantic prison wall. In
fact I surprise our Palestinian hosts, who refer to their territory as a
bantustan, by disagreeing. I explain the differences. Apart from an
absence of physical barriers the Apartheid regime heavily invested in
constructing grand administrative buildings in those territories. These
included Presidential palaces, legislative assemblies, prisons and even
airports. Sharon’s government has concentrated on destroying such
structures. The bantustans were permitted to open offices abroad and
Apartheid encouraged overseas investors. That is some difference
compared to Sharon’s attempts to obliterate everything in sight – political
or economic.

Where clear parallels exist are with the border industries of the apartheid
system. These drew on the reservoir of unemployed labour from the
bantustans. Adjacent to Gaza and the West Bank are plans for at least five
huge industrial parks in Israel to be situated close to gates in the Wall.
Once the West Bank’s economy is irreparably ruined the unemployed –
as in Gaza - will have no choice but to sell their labour power in the
Israeli industrial zones. They will emerge from their prisons in the
morning, clock-in through the check points and return to what in time –
with the shopkeepers and middle class long dispersed – will become
separate dormitory zones bereft of cultural life and national conscience.
Save for an exploitative wage they will be virtual slave labour – free only
to emigrate like so many before them.

Will the Israeli government’s plans succeed? A great crises is looming,
but the Palestinian people have not been vanquished. They show the
tenacity to survive like the olive tree. They are greatly inspired by South
Africa’s liberation struggle and are deserving, along with the Israeli peace
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groups, of the same international support that we enjoyed. We can be
proud of our government’s support for a just, negotiated solution to the
conflict; of our submission to the International Court of Justice against
the Wall; of our President’s dialogue initiative with the Palestinian and
Israeli peace camps. The emergence of the Not In My Name group of
South Africans of Jewish origin has also encouraged Palestinians and
Israelis opposed to the occupation.

We need to work amongst South Africans of all religious persuasions and
with our international contacts to mobilise massive solidarity actions as
was the case with the ultimately victorious anti-apartheid movement.
Those who defend the Wall’s creation need to peer deeply into their
consciences and think of the ghetto walls, and the grim fences of the
concentration camps and find the courage to cry out in the name of all
humanity: “Not in my Name”.

Note: Ronnie Kasrils is South Africa’s Minister of Water Affairs and
Forestry.

Words:            2 600



An edited version of this article was published in the Johannesburg
Sunday Times, 22 February 2004.

				
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