This essay is an excerpt from the recently published The Holocausts We All Deny.
A Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem once took me to his rooftop terrace to explain how Israel is reconquering the Old City.
Whereas Israelis can repair their homes and add structures to their roofs, Palestinians are forbidden from making such improvements, so their homes are left smaller and more dilapidated. Wealthy Jewish groups buy up ancient rooftop crescents to erase the Muslim presence from the city. And the harassment of Palestinian residents and the tension it creates make most tourists wary of visiting their quarter.
The effect is that visitors are left with the impression that the mostly Muslim Old City is primarily Jewish, but that is mostly just window dressing. The presumed object of these policies is to cleanse the city of its native Palestinian inhabitants by making them feel the brunt of their second-class citizenship. The declining value of their property makes them all the more ready to leave.
Israel makes life hard for the residents of East Jerusalem in order to nudge them out of the country. But when Palestinians visit family abroad or leave for school, they are sometimes simply forbidden from returning. Palestinian homes are routinely bulldozed as a punishment for their children running afoul of the state.
According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, 46,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967. They are often just removed outright to make way for settlers.
As Israeli settlers push their way into Palestinian East Jerusalem, they alter the demographics and culture of the city. In past decades, a few hundred thousand Israeli settlers built their homes in East Jerusalem, bringing with them a massive police presence, which can leave Palestinians feeling like strangers in their own land.
But Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have it easy compared with those in the West Bank. Passing from East Jerusalem into the West Bank can feel a lot like entering a maximum security prison. The passage through the wall surrounding the West Bank is a gauntlet of security checks, carried out by callous guards who treat the locals like livestock. And the road to the West Bank capital of Ramallah is a depressing scene of ramshackle buildings and poverty.
The wall was built about a decade ago with the express purpose of keeping Palestinian terrorists out. But a Palestinian friend told me both his brothers regularly cross into Israel illegally to find work. And the wall snakes deep into Palestinian territory, splitting farmers from their land and villagers from one another, thus making its construction a massive land grab, which the International Criminal Court has deemed illegal.
The Palestinian West Bank has been under military occupation for half a century now.
It was originally acquired in 1967, along with the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Israel coveted the West Bank for its centrality to Jewish identity, and Jerusalem has remained its crown jewel.
Yet, the West Bank was already populated by millions of Palestinians, and Jerusalem was their center of cultural and economic life and the main artery linking their major cities. Hence, the Israeli effort to claim it for their own has been fought street by street, with the primary weapons being bulldozers, zoning laws, administrative decrees, and eminent domain.
Over the past several decades, Israel has brought close to 750,000 settlers into both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements have been built strategically so as to break East Jerusalem away from the rest of the West Bank and make forging a viable Palestinian state all but impossible. Hence, when Israel declares their capital to be Jerusalem, it is simply the crowning conception to its long-standing colonization.
Israeli settlements are built outside the state of Israel in its occupied territories, thus making the term “settlement” a euphemism for what are actually colonies. Israeli colonists are well-armed and often shoot to kill, thereby immiserating the Palestinians who must live in their near vicinity. The conflicts that naturally arise between colonized Palestinians and Israeli colonists require constant military interventions in which the Israeli military is strongly biased in favor of their own coreligionists and compatriots.
Israeli soldiers are centered at dozens of permanent checkpoints on the main roads and innumerable “flying” checkpoints that come and go. The checkpoints slow movement and impede economic activity. They allow Israeli Defense Forces to collectively punish whole villages when some of their members protest, and they create a pretext for blackmailing residents to spy on their neighbors. They are the nerve centers of a vast security apparatus and a demeaning source of constant tension, which would be largely unnecessary if not for the settler presence.
Israeli settlements sit high in the hills above most Palestinian villages. Each of them is surrounded by a large ring of cleared land and they are built like fortresses, with their windows facing outward to keep watch over the locals. Israel has destroyed over a million Palestinian olive trees, many of which are ancient, in the effort to punish Palestinians and protect settlers. And clearing their land has often required them to terrorize local residents.
About a third of settlements are built on land stolen from private Palestinian deed holders, according to a study commissioned by the conservative government of Ariel Sharon in 2003. First the state of Israel occupied the land, ruling by a series of military decrees. The settlers then stole the choicest pieces for themselves. Hence, the state was pulled deeper into the West Bank in an effort to protect its citizens. Now, the state is the victim of its own success.
Most people working to end the occupation no longer believe a two-state solution is possible. Activists traveling to the West Bank almost universally report that the built infrastructure and state support for settlers is too great to ever allow for their removal. Their views are formed from on-the-ground experience, but they can often seem unimaginative. However, political leaders like former Secretary of State John Kerry, who worked for years to bring the two sides together, have begun to share their pessimism, concluding that continued settlement building makes the prospect of a two-state solution dim.
But if this is the case, then Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is an unwitting recognition of Israel as an apartheid state. For if his recognition of Jerusalem further entrenches Israel in Palestinian territory, making a two-state solution more difficult to achieve than what top negotiators like Kerry already found next to impossible, then Israel needs to start thinking of West Bank Palestinians as its own.
But if West Bank Palestinians are to be governed by Israel, then Israel will need to face up to the fact that it is now an apartheid state, with two sets of citizens enjoying radically different rights and freedoms, governed by two radically different sets of laws. And the last time the world confronted an apartheid state, it was boycotted and sanctioned until it accepted racial equality.
From the moment Israel took the West Bank in 1967, Israeli elders, like their founding father David Ben Gurion, have warned that holding onto it would be their undoing. Israelis would do well to remember that the end of apartheid was one of the great achievements of the late 20th century, which is justly celebrated the world over.
If Israel continues on the path of apartheid, they should prepare to encounter a similar fate.