This week, the Israeli transportation ministry announced that it would establish designated bus routes for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, allowing Jewish Israelis to travel on buses without Palestinians. Some months ago, the Israeli government started discussing a bill in parliament that would identify Palestinian Christians with Israeli citizenship as “non-Arabs.” These are among the continuing actions by the state of Israel that cause more and more people around the world to roll their eyes in disbelief—for they see Israel slowly turning into an Apartheid-like state that plays with the demography of its citizens and those under its occupation, in order to enhance the wellbeing of the politically dominant Zionist and Jewish majority.
The Israeli government and others who support such moves offer various reasons to support them, claiming that they are in the best interest of the affected minority. The more logical conclusion that most people will reach, I suspect, is that five generations after its birth in the late 1800s, modern political Zionism is showing its racist roots, as it finds it increasingly difficult to keep working for its basic tenet of a Jewish-only state in a land that had been mostly owned and inhabited by Muslims and Christians for many centuries.
The consequence of trying to create a Jewish state in such an environment is that those millions of people who are not Jewish either have to be isolated and penned into restricted zones of residence, work and travel, according to Apartheid-like rules, or else detached from their non-Jewish compatriots and enticed into the Zionist endeavor. The latter is what happened to the Druze population in Israel, which Israel has tried with some success to separate from the rest of the Palestinian population that ended up as Israeli citizens after 1948.
The creation of bus routes for Palestinians alongside other routes that Jewish Israelis and settlers use will certainly strengthen criticisms of Israel and expand the circles of those who condemn it for conducting policies that are very reminiscent of how Apartheid South Africa treated its black and colored citizens. The Israeli government argues that bus routes for Palestinians are for their own good, and will ease congestion, while also lowering tensions between Palestinians and Israelis using the same buses.
This sounds alarmingly like what was said about separate services for American or South African blacks half a century ago. It was no accident that last year when some Palestinians in the West Bank wanted to challenge the practice of roads built in the occupied territories for use by Jewish Israelis only, they called themselves the Palestinian “Freedom Riders”—reviving the name of those American whites and blacks in the 1940s, 50s and 60s who rode together on public buses that previously had refused to carry blacks.
The growing analogies between Zionism and Apartheid understandably anger Israelis, who understand very well that heretofore ironclad support for Israel in many countries would weaken. The growing criticisms in this respect have started to spawn political responses by foreign actors. Various governments, professional associations, churches, student groups and others have started to apply sanctions, divestment or boycott measures to Israeli or international institutions that can be verified as benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. This limited trend keeps growing and increasingly penetrates mainstream institutions, rather than remain a fringe movement of Palestinian activists and their politically marginal colleagues here and there.
Separating Palestinian Christians from other Palestinians and operating bus lines only for Arabs will make it easier for people around the world, including Jews who feel strongly about Judaism’s ethical core, to speak out clearly, forcefully and in public in criticism such Israeli actions. This will also spur greater examinations of Israeli behavior in other fields. Some people who have no knowledge of Israel-Palestine or interest in the matter may speak out against Israel, because they feel a powerful disgust and fear deep inside themselves when they see people classified, separated and treated differently on the basis of religion.
A white South African rabbi who recently spoke at a Palestinian Christian liberation theology conference I attended in the United States eloquently recounted the precise moment when his previously total support for Israel transformed into criticisms of it—it was when he saw “Jews-only” streets in occupied Hebron that were cleansed of Palestinian Arabs and patrolled by the Israeli army. The sight reminded him of the horrors of his own South African Apartheid years.
We will see more such reactions to these latest extreme Israeli moves in the months ahead. Some people will conclude that Israel is veering off into strange and dangerous ways, and others will suggest that it is merely showing the heretofore hidden true colors of Zionism, or of any other such exclusive religious-nationalism ideology.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global