The civil rights struggle of our time

Sep 1, 2010 at 5:00 am

I recently spent three weeks in Israel and the West Bank where I witnessed the brutality of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. Though well read on the “conflict” before my visit, nothing prepared me for the violence and oppression of this occupation — now in its 62nd year — to which the United States offers diplomatic cover and economic assistance.

It is easy to understand what Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, experts on apartheid, mean when they compare Israel to an apartheid state. Israel imposes a structural and systematic segregation and oppression that extends to not only Palestinians in the occupied territories, but also those who are citizens of Israel.

What I saw in Jerusalem was horrifying. I watched Israeli settlers steal a Palestinian home. Israeli police assisted Jewish settlers in occupying the home where 50 Palestinians were living. The family had gone to a wedding and returned to find the settlers had seized their home and all of their belongings. I spoke with an elderly woman who said all of her medicine and medical equipment was inside the house. The police and settlers denied her access to all of it. She heard them breaking things inside. An Israeli activist informed me that he overheard the police say to the settlers, “Don’t worry, we’re on your side.”

I saw Israeli police destroy an entire village in El Arakib in the Negev Desert. Three hundred Palestinian citizens of Israel were made homeless on lands they inhabited long before the founding of the state of Israel. Since July 28, their village has been ransacked three times. Israeli bulldozers have repeatedly crushed the homes and olive trees of this Bedouin community, and each time activists have embarked on efforts to rebuild. The Israeli government wants to plant a forest there. In its eyes, non-indigenous trees are worth more than an entire village of indigenous Palestinians.

Apartheid-like activities flourish within the state of Israel and inside the occupied Palestinian territories. I visited Hebron, a Palestinian city in which 1,000 Israeli settlers have colonized the city center, often attacking and demoralizing Palestinian inhabitants. An overhead net was installed to protect Palestinians on the street level, because some Israeli agitators in the upper levels throw rotten food, rocks and trash, and urinate and defecate on the Palestinians below. There are segregated roads for Jews only. The military has closed many Palestinian businesses under the pretense of security, and soldiers have welded many shop doors shut.

I visited a Palestinian man’s house in Al Walaja, near Bethlehem. Israel is constructing a wall right next to his home, separating him from the majority of his farmland. For years, his family has cultivated this land and depended on it. People from his village helped him tend the land. Once the wall is built, Israel will permit only the man and his son to cross to the other side. They will not be allowed to take any machinery across the wall or any workers from their village as they have always done, so they will not be able to adequately tend the land. Within three years, the Palestinian farmer most likely will lose his land, because the Israeli Absentee Property Law says land not adequately tended for a period of three years will be confiscated and become property of the state of Israel.

During my brief visit, I grew to hate walls. Such sights of separation foster a feeling of hopelessness. The separation — both physically and socially constructed — that the Israelis are forcing on the Palestinians is the cruelest thing I have ever witnessed. It has brought me great sadness and anger to see the detrimental effects that such segregation has on other human beings. The Palestinian struggle is a fight for human rights and human dignity. It is the new civil rights struggle of our time.

Brett McGrath is a senior at the University of Louisville. He will speak about his experiences at 5:30 p.m. this evening at U of L’s Lutz Hall, room 232; at noon on Thursday, Sept. 16, at The Rudyard Kipling, 422 W. Oak St.; and at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 27, at the Presbyterian Seminary, Nelson Hall, Room 119, 1044 Alta Vista Road. These events are free and open to the public. For more information, contact Brett McGrath at [email protected].