Apartheid. Apartheid. Apartheid. There. I said it. It’s time to say it. It’s time for all of us to stop fearing this word. I received a small taste while participating in On The Ground’s Run Across Palestine in February of 2012. It’s bitter. The goal was to run across the West Bank, donate and plant olive trees while telling the story of Palestinian farmers. We didn’t expect it to go smoothly. Few things do in such a region. But none of us expected to witness the flagrant injustices that were meted out by the hand of Israeli authorities.
On our last day in Palestine, we were slapped in the face with Apartheid, and not for the first time. The first day of the run resulted in arrests and harassment from the Israeli military. Not only did they stop a portion of the run, but later that evening as we attempted to plant olive trees in the community of Beit Ummar, the military once again showed up. They launched tear gas and percussion bombs at us in an attempt to prevent us from planting trees. That was outrageous for sure, but much easier to understand in the context of this region. But the true bitter taste came only with the realization that this system, this occupation, this “security need,” whatever you want to call it, is deeply rooted in pure racism. And that was a bitter slap indeed.
Having completed the run, and after a day of joyous celebrations, we all headed to the Dead Sea to enjoy its history and soak in its mineral rich salty waters. We were tired, sore and absolutely upbeat. Our hearts lifted as we passed through the city of Jericho and journalist Jacob Wheeler informed us that it’s the oldest city in the world. The Sea came into view as we anticipated our last adventure together as a team. Only then did our hearts sink when an Israeli military checkpoint came into view. Within minutes we were told our vehicle could not pass because it carried Palestinian license plates. When we asked if we could get out and hike down from the checkpoint, the soldiers said yes, but we couldn’t park there. Then the ultimate insult arrived in the form of denied permission of our Palestinian friend, and our driver.
Had our friend, Vivien Sansour, not insisted that we go without her, we would all have turned around and skipped the Dead Sea. Some of us carried holy trinkets friends had asked us to dip in its waters and we were torn. Either way our hearts ached to be standing at the shores and knowing that we were there only because we were white or born in the “right” vs. the “wrong” place or of the “correct” religion or ethnic origin. Overlooking us a mile away was our van with our two dark skinned friends. Let’s face it: it would be splitting hairs to make the case that this is significantly different than in the US before our civil rights movement. This had nothing to do with security. Vivien was born and raised a Catholic in Bethlehem and is now a US citizen carrying a US passport. But due to an Israeli law that basically states, “Once a Palestinian, always a Palestinian,” she had different rights than us. So while our government may delude itself into thinking that we hold some high standing in the world of racial equality and human rights we are, in this case, clearly turning a blind eye to violations of the rights of our own citizens perpetrated by a very close ally.
I can’t imagine what it was like for our friend and driver. Vivien hadn’t been to the Dead Sea since she was 9. I know it hurt and they did not want it to spoil the mood of that day. But we couldn’t escape the fact that it did. It was difficult to bounce back in part because I felt like a coward for not more forcefully demanding they offer my friends the same rights I have here as a visitor. I can only imagine that I was feeling something like a white person during our own civil rights movement. I wanted to protest. Yet holding me back was the memory of the last time I protested such outrageous treatment less than a week earlier. That incident resulted in our friends getting arrested. One of them is looking at possible prison time. Repression has a way of silencing dissent. So while I knew to protest might not land me in jail, it surely put our Palestinian friends at risk.
So here I am, pissed off in Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. One team member has just been taken away for further questioning because he had an award given to him by one of our host communities for Run Across Palestine. And just now another team member just forwarded me an article indicating that Israeli settlers, escorted by their military, entered the village of Beit Ummar and pulled up 25 of the trees we donated and helped plant just a week earlier.
We came here to tell the story of the Palestinian farmer and have been somewhat frustrated that we’ve been sidetracked with this insanity. We tried to downplay the harassment and obstacles placed in our path by the Israeli government. But I realize now this is the farmer’s story. This is their reality. And there is only one thing to call it. Apartheid…at its worst.