Riding the “Apartheid” Train

Riding the new tram in Jerusalem shows any tourist with fresh eyes a picture of heart warming co-existence. Arabic and Hebrew spoken across the aisle from each other, liberal muslims sitting next to conservative Jews, and vice versa. Standing here in this air conditioned modernity as you are whisked from Damascus gate up Jaffa street into the heart of “West” Jerusalem, you wonder what people mean by “the conflict”, surely those still fighting are getting something wrong – why don’t they adopt the same peacefulness of this cross-community population?

But then, just maybe, you might realize that the “Arab-Israelis” sitting next to Jews on this innocuous piece of public transit may grandparents who lived next door to families expelled by Zionist militia, or who ran in fear of the massacres reported, or who were among the thousands expelled after the 48/49 war was completed. Their grandparents former neighbours and their children are not welcome to ride the Apartheid train – they either live in the West Bank and do not have the right to enter Jerusalem without a difficult to obtain permit, or they may live outside Palestine in an “Enemy Country”, i.e. a country which still refuses to legitimize their dispossession, thereby making it illegal and impossible for them to visit, let alone live, in Jerusalem – even if it is the place where they or their grandparents were born.

So the train is peaceful and normal, but deceptively normal. Truly speaking, it is an exercise in normalization; the appearance of normal life in a situation which is anything but normal. There is something perverse about a normality which pacifies ongoing occupation, ongoing dispossession, ongoing refugee status, and ongoing colonization of Palestinian land. I did not ride the train north from Damascus gate, but it follows a route similar to the Arab bus to Ramallah, so I know that it snakes through Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem (which Israel, in defiance of the world opposition against its annexation of Jordanian/Palestinian territory, refers to as “North Jerusalem”). These are apartheid communities – Jewish communities for Jews only, and Arab communities for Arabs only. And it is not “separate but equal”, because services for Arab communities in East Jerusalem are anything but equal – with inferior access to water, schools, electricity, roads, basically all public services for which they pay taxes.

But worse than all the material discrimination is perhaps the legal discrimination against non-Jewish East Jerusalem residents. Because their parents refused to accept Israeli citizenship in the early weeks following Israel’s invasion of the West Bank (in fear of retribution if Arab countries were to regain the territory), they do not have Israeli citizenship but instead something called “permanent residency”. Which should be called impermanent residency, because it can easily be lost if they are arrested for security concerns, or if they are caught living in any area outside of the (illegal) “Jerusalem Municipal Boundary”. A very visual representation of this blue-card reality is the crazy of building on the north side of Al-Quds road, the main road between Jerusalem and Ramallah, after you pass the Kalandia checkpoint. Dozens, if not hundreds of apartments are being built in this strip of land because prices in East Jerusalem proper have skyrocketed, and Palestinians can move here and retain their blue card status, which allows them to work in Jerusalem. Of course, once they move here, they will have to cross the checkpoint daily to get to work, adding anywhere between 30 and 90 minutes to their commute. But that’s just part of the system, in fact that’s the reason why prices will be lower in this area (if there were no checkpoint, it would simply be a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, as its suburbs blur together with the suburbs of Ramallah).

So, it turns out you can learn quite a bit from riding the Apartheid train. But because of the nature of the occupation and the apartheid here, you can’t take the surface for the truth – you need to know something about history, about legal context, about what is behind the easy everyday normalization of the current situation. Israel is highly skilled at presenting a superficial image that turns tourists to its side, but anyone interested in searching a bit deeper will see that the side of truth and freedom do not reside with the Zionists, but with the Palestinian revolution – which affirms the values of indigenous rights, religious freedom, and secular democracy – as opposed to a religious democracy with no respect for the indigenous people, and which allots religious freedoms only after dispossessing the majority of Muslims and Christians of their homes and their right to live on their homeland. The situation is made more difficult, however, by the fact that the major Palestinian factions have abandoned the revolution and are more interested in maintaining their own power by supporting Israel’s normalization process, at least for the time being.

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