The Common Good
September-October 2001

Inside Israeli Apartheid

by Jim Wallis | September-October 2001

An interview with Palestinian Christian Jonathan Kuttab.

Jonathan Kuttab, a leading human rights lawyer in Israel and Palestine, was born in West Jerusalem and raised there and in Bethlehem. After the Six Day War, Kuttab's family moved to the United States, where he graduated from Messiah College and earned his law degree from the University of Virginia. After practicing with a Wall Street law firm for several years, in 1980 Kuttab returned to his homeland where he continues to handle cases that have both Israeli and Palestinian officials squirming.

Kuttab co-founded the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence; the West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, Al-Haq; and the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners. He was interviewed earlier this year in Jerusalem by

Sojourners editor Jim Wallis.

Jim Wallis: People who support the Palestinian cause have also supported the Oslo peace process. Now it has fallen apart and there's a second intifada-this one more wild than the first. What are we to make of this?

Jonathan Kuttab: Everyone thought that the Oslo process, despite its goblins, would lead to a Palestinian state-a two-state solution. The reality, however, was the opposite. The Oslo process created an alternative to international law, to the mechanisms of the United Nations, to international solidarity, and to a genuine struggle for justice. It created a crazy partnership between the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli occupation forces, whereby the Palestinian leadership was given the task of maintaining peace and order for the Israeli settlers and the state of Israel in return for privileges that were doled out a little at a time. In the end, Israel had all the power on the ground. The Palestinians either had to accept the Israeli structure or simply suffer with no recourse.

Wallis: U.S. opinion pages blame Yasir Arafat for the breakdown of the peace process and the resulting violence. They say Oslo was the best agreement Israel has ever offered. Why didn't Arafat accept this?

Kuttab: Very few people understand the structure of the Oslo process. It cut the West Bank into three zones. The map showing these zones is almost never shown in the United States because it reveals small enclaves of Palestinian control within an overwhelmingly Israeli-controlled area.

With the zones, Israel has the capacity not only to control entry and exit into Palestine and Israel, but also to control movement between and within Palestinian villages, towns, and refugee camps in the occupied territories. Under this system simply going to work or school, to church or the hospital is an absolute nightmare. Palestinians are effectively denied taking their cars on roads in the West Bank. We must either go by donkey or on foot, otherwise we risk violating the law and being shot. Israeli settlers, on the other hand, have bypass access roads that link them directly to Israel and to each other.

Palestinians are supposed to accept this as a permanent state of affairs. Under this structure, it doesn't matter what percentage of land you turn over to the Palestinian authority. The question is no longer about true sovereignty, but rather about administering real estate on behalf of an overarching occupation. That is why Arafat rejected the offer. He was faced with signing something that was totally unacceptable to the Palestinian people, that would deny their right of return, that would turn them into a Vichy-type regime. That agreement would have legitimized the illegal settlements and made the Palestinians permanently under an occupation and domination-all approved and legitimized by their own leadership. And all this would have been called a "separate state."

Wallis: Was the Oslo arrangement worse than what preceded it?

Kuttab: Over the last few years Palestinians have seen enough of what Israel had in mind when it talked about statehood. Human rights violations have increased, as have the stealing of land and the expansion of settlements. International solidarity and support for Palestinians has been utterly neutralized because everybody is supporting the peace process. I mean, how can you be against the peace process? Under Oslo, the day-to-day life of the Palestinian has become worse.

I don't want a passport that is invalid unless it is entered into an Israeli computer. I don't want a Palestinian airport that you must travel to in a sealed bus, which takes you first to the Israeli checkpoint to be examined, questioned, and maybe arrested. A passport is supposed to allow you to travel freely. If I can't travel, what is the use of a passport?

Wallis: Oslo led to a apartheid-like situation, making life for ordinary people a nightmare, and the violent revolt began. Now, because of this violence, people elsewhere are withdrawing support from the Palestinian cause and blaming the breakdown on the Palestinians.

Kuttab: The brilliance of the Israeli occupation has been in the battle of images. They present their occupation as the acceptable status quo, while any attempt by the Palestinians to resist it is shown as violence, terrorism, disruption, and opposition to the peace process. The peace and justice community has been also trapped into this method of looking at things.

We have drifted away from what we know to be true. The settlements are illegal. They are built on stolen property. They are racist because only Jews can live in them. Jews in the settlements live under their own regime-separate courts, separate roads, separate health system, separate economic structures-yet they are portrayed as civilians whose security and protection is an absolute value. If the Palestinians resist them, then it is Palestinians who are disrupting the peace process.

Wallis: Many people don't understand the politics of the settlements. They are self-contained compounds with beautiful green grass, swimming pools, and shopping outlets that include stores like Burger King and Home Depot. They are upper-middle-class, First World enclaves surrounded by desert and Palestinians who can't even access their own water.

Kuttab: The most extreme example is the Gaza Strip. It is about seven miles wide and 20 miles long. There are 1 million Palestinians who live there, and about 2,000 Jewish settlers. These 2,000 settlers live in small, scattered communities, but they control about 40 percent of the land and 30 percent of the water of the Gaza Strip.

One thing must be clear: Settlements are illegal under international law. They are morally indefensible. They have no religious justification whatsoever. As Christians committed to peace with justice, we must say that settlements must stop. As long as there are settlements, the occupation is going to continue. A concerted effort at boycotts and sanctions linked to settlements and settler activities can be very effective and successful. Ultimately it's better for Israel to be rid of the settlements, and many Israelis are opposed to them. The problem is that any Israeli leader who wants to dismantle settlements, or even stop their growth, has had to pay a heavy political price. There was no international solidarity movement demanding that the settlements be dismantled. Still there is no political price Israel has to pay for continuing with the settlement policy-no embarrassments, no boycotts, no demonstrations, no challenges to Israeli policy.

Wallis: You have said that you think Israel is more vulnerable to economic, social, and political pressure than South Africa ever was.

Kuttab: Apartheid South Africa had the internal resources to flaunt the rest of the world, and in fact did so for many years. Israel doesn't enjoy these advantages. It is a small country. It doesn't have many of the basic raw natural resources. It depends economically on tourism and on donations from the outside world, particularly Western Jewish communities. Its cultural, social, and economic life is linked to the West.

Israeli policy, particularly the settlement policy, must be put under genuine attack by the West. If Israeli aid, trade, and cultural life were made conditional on the dismantling of settlements, on creating a just peace, I don't think Israel could resist that pressure for very long. However, it would take a lot of courage and many principled people to carry out such a battle because it would be fought against the background of sympathy for the state of Israel and for the Jews that arises from the Holocaust. Individuals who undertake such a campaign may come under attack by those who support the state of Israel without question.

Wallis: Would you see involving Christian churches as critical to this campaign, as was the case with South Africa?

Kuttab: Yes. There are Palestinian Christians and Palestinian churches that can speak to these issues. Unfortunately, many of the churches in the United States, particularly the evangelical churches, have allied themselves not only with Israel and its settlement policy, but even with extreme right-wing Israeli politics. Ultimately this policy calls for the expulsion of Palestinians. Ironically, the one community where this policy is most successful is the Christian community. Christians are leaving the country in large numbers. If we lose the Christian component, I think it will be a tremendous loss for all Palestinians.

Wallis: Can one support the state of Israel as a Jewish state and still say settlements are not only illegal, but are causing a brutal destruction of Palestinian life? Can one be against settlements and for a two-state solution without being interpreted as undermining the state of Israel?

Kuttab: That is the challenge. Israel has managed to blur the distinction between the issues of state security and the policy of domination. Any challenge to the policy of domination is viewed as a threat against the survival of the state of Israel. We need to uncouple these two things before we can be effective in a nonviolence campaign. As a Palestinian Christian, I can be for Palestinians, for the state of Israel, and for God-while at the same time be against the illegal occupation and the settlements.

Wallis: You would focus on the settlements as the primary target of a campaign of nonviolent resistance. If the short-term goal is to end the settlement policy, what kind of strategy or tactics would you recommend? Economic pressure?

Kuttab: Economic pressure is certainly one piece of the strategy, but moral pressure is also needed. We must win the battle for the hearts and minds of people, including the American Jewish community. In this respect we must be very careful to avoid any alliance with those who hate Jews because they are Jews, with people who are anti-Semitic. I have nothing to say or to do with those people. One must be clear that one is doing this out of concern for justice and for love for both people, not out of hatred for Jews.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)