Three weeks ago, I rode my bicycle down the West Bank of the Jordan River Valley. This was against advice from Israelis who cautioned my friend and me about our safety in Palestinian territory.
Crossing the checkpoint with merely a wave from an armed Israeli guard, we noticed an immediate change. This was no longer the First World go-go economy of Israel, but rather a Third World country.
Agriculture was still the primary economic activity, but farms here lacked the polish of Israeli kibbutzim. There was noticeable squalor in the villages we passed. Some roadsides were piled deep with trash, like an open dump. The smell of raw sewage occasionally wafted in the air.
Seeing herdsmen with sheep and goats was not a novelty, but seeing women in full burqas shepherding the flocks told us we were in a different world. After 100 kilometers, we passed another checkpoint and felt a noted sense of relief leaving Palestine behind.
This bothered me because it gave credence to the comment I read later by John Kerry stating that Israel is on the verge of becoming an apartheid state as defined by racial segregation and discrimination against Palestinians.
Kerry hit a raw nerve with his unguarded gaff, but what he said deserves serious consideration. Clearly there is inequality for Palestinians in Israel. It isn’t as pernicious as apartheid in South Africa, where the expression was coined, until you look at the Palestinian refugee camps fenced, gated and lorded over by Israeli troops and curfews.
Young Israelis I spoke to, some of whom had served in those camps, shook their heads in sorrow over this social and cultural division. Many see it as an embarrassment to their nation and an affront to their values.
The humanists among them condemn the moral failure of their state and its leadership. Meanwhile, more settlements are planned in occupied territories in an imperialistic manipulation that has been a historic part of Israel long before it became a state in 1948. Taking Palestinian land is a long-standing, controversial tradition.
Now that the high hopes for talks led by Kerry and the Obama administration have failed, the future is cloudy. A friend in Tel Aviv who was born in Israel before statehood was quick to chide this impasse as the result of ineffectual force by the U.S.
An obvious lack of coercive power to form a two-state agreement lies, he said, in the inability of the U.S. to broker the deal. “Obama could do it if it weren’t for Republicans — and their Jewish supporters — derailing everything he tries to do. America is not the entity that should broker this deal.”
My friend said that Russia and China are better equipped to take the lead. “It’s going to take Putin or the Chinese to force this agreement, someone with big enough balls to dictate terms and make them stick.”
A photograph in Haaretz Israeli News made a telling statement when I was there. It showed a young Palestinian man at a protest wearing a T-shirt and jeans, his face masked in a hood. The man leaped into the air as he launched a rock with his sling in an act of defiance that is painfully ironic.
Where biblical history teaches that David, a Jew, hurled a fatal rock at Goliath, the Philistine giant, today things are reversed. Now a young Palestinian hurls a rock at the Jewish state, which has become the Goliath of the Levant. This metaphor speaks loudly to Palestinian underdogs gaining sympathy and moral authority.
My Tel Aviv friend points out that there are 6 million Israelis in a nation the size of New Jersey surrounded by 3 billion Muslims and four vast and contiguous Arab states.
Israel is a powerhouse of military strength, but that cannot offer lasting protection in a dualistic, militant state, especially if the youth of Israeli lose their stomach for repression and war.
It would be prudent to resolve the Palestinian issue before apartheid solidifies global sympathy and fuels Arab unity against Israel. Perhaps China and Russia need to step in as the next big players on this tumultuous stage.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.