Mahmoud used to rise early to try to get to work, having to pass through humiliating checkpoints and to travel the old roads (the new roads are reserved for Israelis). Now he does not do so, for there is no longer any work. Neither can he feed his family. Such is life under the “new apartheid” in the occupied Palestinian territories, where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line.
In the old South Africa, where whites feared being outnumbered by blacks 9 to 1, they instituted an apartheid system, a legalized form of segregation and discrimination. They knew if blacks were ever allowed to vote, it would spell the end of their hothouse Western economy and lifestyle. So blacks were forced to live imprisoned in crowded townships, amid institutionalized poverty, violence and police brutality. Traveling outside to find work was always dangerous, if not illegal.
I lived there for a summer in 1988, before the fall of apartheid, and I recall the dense cloud of fear and anger that permeated the townships and made me tremble. As an American I was welcomed by the blacks but mistrusted by most Afrikaners (the white descendants of Dutch colonists) and resented by many English-speaking whites, because at that time the U.S. had joined other nations in imposing economic sanctions to try to get South Africa’s intractable white government to begin reforms. I even recall being followed and questioned more than once by South Africa’s notorious security police.
The sanctions worked, for only a few years later, the wall of apartheid came tumbling down. Now the nation struggles not just with its past, but with its future, trying to forge a new identity, as formerly oppressed blacks learn to live with new freedoms and formerly privileged whites learn to live as a minority within their own country.
The comparison between South African apartheid and that currently practiced in the occupied Palestinian territories is not exact. For one thing, the kind of apartheid practiced by Israel is not racially based. There are Palestinians who live freely and well in Israel. But there are several points of comparison. Today most Israelis live in fear of being outnumbered, for the birthrate among impoverished Palestinians is far outpacing that of Israelis. Therefore, the idea of giving Palestinians in the occupied territories the right to vote as Israeli citizens and welcoming them into a prospering economy seems like suicide. Instead, Israel has erected walls, and not just of concrete, but economic barriers as well.
But the biggest issue is also the oldest: land. Israeli settlers continue to occupy land given to the Palestinians by UN mandate. And despite occasional efforts by Israeli politicians to hold back these settlements, they continue not only to exist but to increase each year: Israelis gobbling up more and more land, leaving Palestinians in shrinking islands of ever increasing poverty, bitterness and hopelessness.
The history of Palestinian terrorism and recent rocket attacks appear to give Israeli military control over these territories some legitimacy. But in clamping down on the violence with violence, and massacring hundreds of children in the process, Israel is only deepening the hatred and turning up the heat on an already boiling cauldron. Polls indicate that the majority of Israelis as well as Palestinians want peace and favor a two-state solution. So what’s standing in the way? We are, for one.
Ironic, isn’t it, that American evangelicals, who claim to serve the Prince of peace, are a major roadblock to achieving it? It’s also ironic that Christian Zionists, who ought to be living in the New Testament, are still stuck in the Old. “God gave this land to Abraham,” they say. “The Palestinians should leave.” Where do they propose that 4 million people should go? Cozumel? Perhaps they would favor annihilation. Is this the Great Commission handed down from our Lord: “Go take back the land, slaughter its inhabitants”?
One solution would be for an American President to speak firmly to Israel: “If you don’t remove these settlements, all US aid will be cut off.” Despite their chutzpah, most Israeli politicians would tremble, since they rely so heavily on US support. Is it likely that any American President would say such a thing, even if he wanted to? No. Why? Because he knows the powerful Israel lobby in Washington, of which these evangelicals form no small part, wouldn’t wear it.
So for the time being, the situation will probably get worse, tensions in the Middle East continue to boil, providing more and more fodder for Jihad against the West, until the US, like Israel, becomes an armed camp.
What can you do? Write your Congressmen and the President. Tell them you do not support Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and that oppression of Palestinians must cease for there to be lasting peace. And pray, pray, pray for God to raise up politicians here and there who have the courage to do the right thing. And pray that the power of the Israel lobby in Washington would begin to collapse, allowing a real and lasting peace in that war-torn land.
Some may say, it’s up to the Palestinians to renounce terrorism. Yes, they should, but how likely is that, when such injustice exists? If it wants peace, Israel must take the first step, and for Israel to make that step, Washington must apply pressure. For Washington to apply pressure, we must pressure Washington.