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Like the old days in South Africa

A tour of Hebron with Raymond Louw, former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, the newspaper that was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz Magazine, 05/24/2001

I went to Hebron with Raymond Louw. For 11 years, Louw was the editor-in-chief of the Rand Daily Mail, the Johannesburg newspaper that resolutely fought apartheid during its darkest period. A youthful 74, Louw, who has earned the nickname "Mr. Press Freedom," travels all over the world. Last week, he was in Israel.We thought about visiting Hebron because we thought about apartheid. No other place in the occupied territories can better illustrate the brutal essence of the Israeli occupation and the local version of apartheid. In Hebron, a tiny minority of about 400 people cruelly controls a huge majority of 140,000 residents, about 30,000 of whom live under direct Israeli military rule; tens of thousands of Palestinians are subjected to curfews and closures due to a holiday or demonstration or any other whim of the Jewish minority; there are roads for Jews only; stores are burned down and market stalls are overturned; acts of violence occur almost daily; the security forces stationed there do not lift a finger when the violence is perpetrated by the ruling minority, but respond severely when the violence comes from the subjugated majority. A guerrilla war is being waged by the occupied against the occupier; between the two peoples - not to say the two races - surges a deep and violent hatred commingled with fear.

Louw has been to Israel a number of times, but this was his first visit to its occupied territories, not counting East Jerusalem. On his past visits, his hosts were careful to keep him away from those areas. They showed him only the nice side of Israel - the beauty of Jerusalem, the liveliness of Tel Aviv, the kibbutz and the moshav, the universities and Yad Vashem, the Dead Sea and the holy places - the usual itinerary. Last week, I took him to Hebron, perhaps the most abject place in the occupied territories. He was frequently reminded of the "old days" - the days of the apartheid regime against which he fought; he often found the situation here to be incomparably worse than the way things were in South Africa in the old days.

Louw donned a bulletproof vest - for the first time in his life - and together we walked about the streets of the bloody and divided city. He was obviously shocked by what he saw - the anti-Arab graffiti, the soldiers' body language, the poster of murdered infant Shalhevet Pass. The sweet tea he sipped while sitting on a rickety stool at the shabby cafe of Abu-Adnan at the entrance to the Hebron casbah was unlike any tea he'd ever tasted in South Africa, he commented. "Something has to be different," remarked someone sitting nearby.

How symbolic: Apartheid began in South Africa in 1948. It lasted for 42 years, with five million whites controlling 35 million blacks, "until we came to the conclusion that we couldn't go on this way. Luckily, we managed to reach a solution before we destroyed ourselves. We were on the verge of a civil war. It simply wasn't right. There's no way you can keep on preventing most of the residents from living their lives."

In the car, on the road from Emek Ha'ela, via Tzurif near Alon Shvut, we came upon Efrat, which is endlessly expanding: "I've never understood the logic of the settlements. What do they want to achieve? I'm not aware of the full history of your conflict. I understand the Jews' need for a homeland and your homeland is here. It has always been here. I can understand that.

"What I don't understand is why there cannot be mutual recognition that this is the land of two peoples. I understand that in the beginning, the Arabs wanted to throw you into the sea. I understand that by now, they've accepted your presence here. So if they accept your existence here and most of the Jews accept the Palestinians' presence here, where do you plan on going with this? I understand that most Jews and Palestinians do not want a one-state solution, so the only thing left is a two-state solution.

"With us, the situation was that the whites wanted to keep South Africa for themselves despite the black majority there. That's why they kept them second-class citizens. It's exactly like what you're doing here: The Israelis are determined to hold on to the territories despite the people who live there. That's the similar part. But you haven't taken the kind of steps that were taken in South Africa. You haven't prevented Palestinians from doing business with Israelis."

But, in fact, that's exactly what's happening - the closure precludes them from doing so.

"The blacks were only allowed to maintain very limited businesses in their areas - only one store and no more. Almost all the resources were at the whites' disposal and hardly anything was available to the blacks. Perhaps it is similar here: With us, the whites saw the blacks as a political and economic threat. You appear to view the Palestinians the same way. But are you dependent on Palestinian labor in your economy? With us, the economy was based on black labor. The first time I came here, Israelis were concerned about the demographic threat. Are you still afraid of it?"

Which is more moral - the South African apartheid or the Israeli occupation?

"Neither one is moral or even practical. They can't last forever. With us, that's already been proven."

At the Cave of the Patriarchs, which has separate entrances for Jews and Arabs: "In the old days, stores in South Africa had separate entrances, one for whites and one for blacks. If a black person entered through the whites' door, no one would serve him. There was total separation. They also wanted separate elevators, but you know what the problem was? They couldn't build enough elevators. I told you apartheid wasn't practical."

We pass burned out Palestinian stores, a locksmith shop that has been trashed, shuttered businesses situated opposite the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. Elian Abu-Hadad is the proprietor of the ruined locksmith shop. He'd worked here for 45 years. A few weeks ago, settlers came and destroyed his business. Since the outbreak of the Intifada, he's struggled to make ends meet; now his shop has been completely wrecked. Several days ago, he tried to start rebuilding it, but says that the IDF wouldn't allow him to. The 51-year-old locksmith who has 12 mouths to feed, including his elderly parents, gazes forlornly at the destruction and says that he doesn't know what to do. "I have no idea what will be. I am waiting for God's help."

Further down the street: the bakery blown up by the settlers several weeks ago. The walls are covered with soot; the owner would like to fix the place up. "Shalhevet's blood cries out: No more terror!" screams a poster affixed to the wall, which is also decorated with a drawing of angry Palestinians shooting.

An Israeli soldier leans nonchalantly on his jeep, smoking a cigarette; three young Palestinians stand submissively behind him holding plastic bags full of groceries, waiting for the soldier to permit them to continue on their way. They've already been standing here a long time, having given their ID cards to the soldier. Now he's having a smoke. He's in no hurry. Let them stand and wait. They're Palestinians.

A bulletproofed military truck transports a number of settler children up Shuhada Street. Barbed wire fencing is spread along part of what, until recently, were stalls of the Hebron marketplace. A sanitation worker loads crates of rotten melons onto his wagon. The merchants here are having a hard time selling their wares because of the economic situation in the city and because of the fear of the army and the settlers felt by shoppers in this market that abuts the Avraham Avinu area.

Raymond Louw's initial impression: "It's depressing. This is a city under military occupation without any rights for the occupied. There was never a situation like this with apartheid. The control in the black areas was not so forceful. I don't think you can compare the two situations. Under apartheid, there was a recognition that the blacks would continue to live in their areas. Here the impression is that the objective is to push the Palestinians out.

"With us, there were several pockets of blacks living in the heart of white neighborhoods from which they were then expelled, but these were only in isolated places. There was an area in Johannesburg - Sophiatown - where blacks were living in the heart of an area inhabited by whites. They expelled all the blacks to a distance of 15 or 20 kilometers away. And even then, it was done by the police.

"Here it is being done by the settlers. I don't know if that makes a big difference. It may not be exactly the same thing, but the motivation is the same. What's happening here is an attempt to pressure them by means of attrition. The Israelis prevent some of the Palestinians from making a living, stores are closed or burned."

Who generally initiates the provocations, Louw asks. Bassam Eid, head of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, says that the Palestinians are the ones fighting an occupation and thus the question of who started it is meaningless.

"Ehud Olmert - A United Jerusalem" is the message embroidered on the cap of the man clearing the rotten melons out of the market. "Arabs out," urges the graffiti on the first closed store on Shuhada Street, referred to as King David Street by the settlers. But this famous street belongs to the settlers: Only Jewish cars are allowed on it, the Palestinian stores stand deserted, some boarded up and sprayed with Hebrew graffiti. Most of the windows of the Palestinian houses have been covered with iron bars to protect them from stone-throwing settlers. A number of windows are shattered. At the end of the street, approaching Beit Hadassah, we two Jews - one Palestinian and one South African - are also denied passage. A soldier wearing fashionable eyeglasses blocks our way.

"With us, in the old days, there were no separate roads for blacks and whites. There were places that blacks needed a permit to enter, but they could easily obtain the permit. With us, they couldn't close off the roads to blacks since they were the servants in the whites' houses. There were hours when they were forbidden to be in certain areas."

Purple bougainvillea crawls up the exterior of a closed-up furniture store. To judge by the amount of bougainvillea covering the store's doors, it has been a long time since any furniture was sold here. An illustrated sign is the only reminder of the abandoned business.

Louw counts six IDF checkpoints in less than a kilometer, from the Cave of the Patriarchs to Shuhada Street. In South Africa, there were roadblocks only at the entrance to neighborhoods, not within them. "We hate you, you stinking people," someone has scrawled in Hebrew on another boarded-up store at the entrance to the market. No one - Jewish or Palestinian - bothers to remove this particular bit of ugliness.

Were there slogans like this in South Africa?

"No, not at all. There was graffiti supporting the African National Congress, such as 'Long live the ANC.' Not on the stores, only on the walls. Of course, the whites would say similar things, but they never wrote it."

By the next checkpoint, on the street leading from Shuhada to the market, Louw again notices several young Palestinians who are being detained by soldiers. He wants to follow what's happening, but after several minutes, when it becomes apparent that these young people could be standing here for quite some time, he gives up.

"The Israeli soldiers appear to me to be more brutal than ever. There's an atmosphere of power and domination and contempt. I don't believe it was so in the past. They used to seem like they were serving their country. It is my impression that the soldiers' brutality and arrogance is penetrating all the authorities in their contact with the Palestinians. The police in South Africa also treated blacks as if they weren't human. This is what is happening here. Non-people, non-humans, people without any rights or human dignity - so it's okay to do anything to them. And it permeates everything. This is the ugly side of all political oppression."

A distant memory: "Once, my car was pelted with stones after I entered a black neighborhood. This was in the 1950s when blacks had just shot at black train passengers who were returning from working for whites after a general strike had been called. The car was suddenly surrounded by a black mob and one of the blacks came up to me and told me that I had better get away quickly. They wrecked the rear of the car. It was the most dangerous situation I've ever been in. I had with me a pistol that my father had given me as a present, but thank God, I didn't use it. I finished off half a bottle of brandy because of the fear. The next day, when I was in the tub, my son - who was then two years old - came in holding the pistol. I returned it to my father that same day."

A traffic jam on the Tunnel Road, due to work being done to increase protection on the road. "I cannot understand how the settlers can want to live in such an atmosphere. We have a high crime rate in South Africa. My house has alarms, bars and infrared and is surrounded by an electric fence. Every time we come in, we bolt all the four doors to the house. We only leave a door open if we're sitting in the garden. You never know if someone armed is about to suddenly come over the fence with his gun drawn. We're also cautious when we get into the car. This is the tension that we live with. But I think that this is nothing compared to what we saw today in Hebron. In Hebron, they're living atop a keg of dynamite."

Back in Jerusalem, Louw removed the bulletproof vest. Near Mishmar Hashiv'a, on the eastern outskirts of Tel Aviv, he wanted to know if the walls surrounding the highway were meant for protection against shooting or to separate Jews and Arabs. But these walls were constructed only for acoustic purposes

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