Pastrami and apartheid

Palestinians from the village of Bil’in protest against an Israeli fence and settlement in Five Broken Cameras

Palestinians from the village of Bil’in protest against an Israeli fence and settlement in Five Broken Cameras

How many orthodox rabbis does it take to change a lightbulb?

None. Change? What’s that?

I was reminded of this joke while watching two documentaries about Israel-Palestine, on the TriContinental Film Festival. I thought of it during Five Broken Cameras, seeing how the Jews filling up the settlements encroaching on the occupied territories of the West Bank looked very frum — white shirts, black pants, yarmulkes, tallis tassels.
And I thought of it again while watching Roadmap to Apartheid, when one conservative rabbi is quoted as saying that the presence of Palestinians within Israel is a “cancer” that has to be cut out.

Five Broken Cameras is a simple piece of work, though no less effective for that. The cameras in question belong to Emad Burnat, a Palestinian living in a West Bank village called Bil’in. He acquires his first camera when his fourth son, Gibreel, is born; he wants to record Gibreel’s growing years.

At much the same time, though, a fence suddenly appears, cutting across the land near Burnat’s village, just beyond its beloved olive groves. The fence then requires cohorts of Israeli soldiers to police it, and a new Jewish settlement begins to rise on the hilltop overlooking the fence and the olive groves of Bil’in. Over five years, as Gibreel grows, so does the Jewish settlement — and, in parallel, the villagers’ resistance to this seizure of Palestinian land. They are supported in this by Israeli and other human-rights activists, but legal vindication is slow and is not acted upon by the Israeli government.

Burnat’s cameras get smashed by army boots or pierced by bullets in the course of this resistance and protest. Burnat himself gets rather smashed up in a car crash, too; and, in the meantime, relatives and friends are being jailed or killed by the Israelis. Gibreel grows to age five, an age at which he is able to ask: Dad, why did they kill my uncle?

The answers to that question are detailed with alarming fullness in Roadmap to Apartheid, made by South African Ana Nogueira and Israeli Eron Davidson (and narrated in a somewhat soporific style by author Alice Walker; she sounds like she’s counselling a child). Its activist intentions are clear from early on, when a split screen shows images from apartheid South Africa alongside shots from Israel-Palestine — the protests, the repression, the funerals, the anger and desperation. Apartheid South Africa had no incidents akin to Operation Cast Lead in 2008, when Israel bombed Gaza to shreds, but if you were in any doubt about why the apartheid comparison is being made in relation to Israel, the documentary should clarify the matter for you.

Articles and letters in this newspaper keep chewing over the “apartheid Israel” issue, as any regular reader will have seen, probably to an almost nauseating degree. Writers with Muslim names go on about the “Zionist entity”, as though they can’t bear to write the word “Israel”. (Some of them come from the Media Review Network, which should really be called the Muslim Review Network.) Writers with Jewish names, sometimes clearly affiliated to Zionist or Israel-supporting groups, argue back — Israel is the only democracy in the region, they say, or the South African government’s attitude to human-rights abuses in Israel-Palestine is inconsistent (it doesn’t much mind such abuses in, say, Myanmar or Iran, let alone Zimbab­we), and so on.

None of the Jewish letters, however, address the basic issue raised by Roadmap to Apartheid — the fundamental problem at the root of the present state of conflict between Israel and the territories it occupies with military force. That is the fact that Israel is still building large Jewish-only settlements (50 000 to 80 000 residents) in the West Bank, well beyond the “green line” that defines the borders of Israel as they stood before the 1967 war.

This means that a process that can only be described as post-conquest colonisation is continuing today as Israel, in contravention of international law and sometimes Israeli law, pushes outwards in search of more Lebensraum. And that colonisation is brutal, not only in the way it is enforced by military force but also in the way it does violence to the living landscape of the West Bank, carving it up into disconnected bits that look an awful lot like the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa.

Along with the settlements come highways to link them, highways considered “sterile” by the Israeli military. “Sterile” means that they are free of Palestinians; they can only be used by Jewish settlers, who are issued with special yellow number plates to identify them. How weird that they should be yellow, like the stars used by the Nazis to identify Jews, but that’s not the least of the ironies here, as the various commentators (Jewish, Palestinian, American, British ...) explain.

Former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon is quoted as saying how Israel would make a pastrami sandwich of the occupied territories, slicing them up with Jewish settlements, roads and other installations so that no disentanglement would be possible — even if the “two-state solution” for Israel and Palestine were ultimately to prevail. As commentators in the documentary note, this is Israel’s way of subverting the “two-state solution” in advance.

When it comes to East Jerusalem, too, Roadmap to Apartheid shows how Palestinian residents are being squeezed out, by demolitions of their homes and the sheer bloody-minded hostility of their Jewish neighbours. One head-scarved Jewish matron smiles happily as she tells the camera how, eventually, all the “Arabs” will be gone. Praise the Lord.

The TriContinental Film Festival continues until September 16 in Johannesburg, until September 18 in Cape Town and until September 23 in Pretoria. Go to for schedules and more information

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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