Democracy and its failures in a segregated world

by Yaniv Reich on October 25, 2009

For the 45,000 Palestinian residents of the Beit Awwa municipality in the southern West Bank, the years since 2001 have been unusually difficult. In that year, one of the most popular and useful roads in the area was closed to them—and them alone. The Israeli military commander in the area had determined that the use of the road by one ethnic group, the Palestinians, constituted a security threat to the 150 Jewish settlers that lived nearby and used the road regularly. The army officer decided that an apartheid policy, which caused massive disruption to the lives of 45,000 Palestinians, was justified because of 150 Jews, who live in two settlement outposts not even recognized by the Israeli government. Contrary to international humanitarian law and its interpretation by all other nations, Israel distinguishes between recognized settlements and illegal outposts in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Roughly eight years later—that is, three days ago—the local government authorities of two affected Palestinian villages won their case in Israel’s High Court. The Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch wrote the majority opinion:

Closing the road to Palestinian vehicles in the manner described above severely infringes the rights of the local residents in a disproportionate manner. This situation violates the duty of the military commander to ensure the welfare of the local population and enable them to live normal lives, and also taking into account security needs, of which we are aware, it does not meet the test of proportionality in its narrow meaning. The security advantage attained from closing the road in the way it was done does not bear a reasonable relationship to the harm to the local residents.

The court ruled that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has three months to resolve this issue.  The army has three months, that is, to remove the policy of segregation that has “severely” infringed on basic Palestinian rights for the last eight years.  There will be no compensation.  There will be no apology.  Just the long overdue correction to a policy of apartheid.

I chose this case to launch my blog because it encapsulates many of the issues at play, every day, in Israel/Palestine.  It also serves as a case study about how people typically debate peace and justice in the Middle East.  Critics of Israeli policy will rightfully focus on the system of apartheid that is currently in effect all over Palestine, of which this is just one case.  Proponents of Israeli policy will argue that such a decision by Israel’s top judicial body is testament to Israel’s commitment to democracy and human rights.  As with so many things, there is truth to both perspectives.

Yes, truth too can be in a hybrid state, which can make it a tricky affair to evaluate.  Yet the rigorous assessment of claims to truth is all the more sensitive, and important,  when people from all sides tend to shout so loudly for cultural and historical reasons.   It is far too easy to become a passive observer in the face of shouting matches, political posturing, and a couple thousand years of history.  I assert that this passivity is one of the driving forces that allows the violent occupation of Palestine to continue.

As an Israeli, as an American, as a Jew, and first and foremost as a human being, I do not accept a pseudo-evenhandedness in which the evidence of systematic policies of apartheid are traded off against Israel’s upholding of some democratic principles.  Partial democracy does not, indeed cannot, excuse its failings.

Therefore, I welcome and commend the Court’s decision, which is one small but concrete step toward democratic ideals.  But I ask: what about all the other Jewish-only roads in the West Bank?  How long will it take the High Court to desegregate all the highways of the West Bank?  How will it resolve the psychological trauma imposed on a generation of Palestinian children, who walk many kilometers across fields to get to their schools and loved ones’ houses while watching a tiny and illegal minority of Jewish extremists colonize their roads, their national homeland?  All in the name of security?

There is much to disagree on in the Middle East.  But there is also a wide range of facts around which all but the most extremist people can agree.  In this case, that area of agreement should be crystal clear: a policy of segregation that infringes upon the rights of one group for the benefit of another is morally and legally unacceptable.

This core idea will be one of the guiding principles of this blog.

Related Posts:

Previous post:

Next post: