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Israel needs to wake up and smell the coffee

It would cost Israel little to allow the people of the West Bank the basic freedom to trade and travel, rights all of us would regard as essential, writes Jonathan Freedland

    A Palestinian protester hurls stones at Israeli soldiers during clashes after a protest against the expanding of Jewish settlements in Kufr Qadoom village near the West Bank city of Nablus on March 16
    A Palestinian protester hurls stones at Israeli soldiers during clashes after a protest against the expanding of Jewish settlements in Kufr Qadoom village near the West Bank city of Nablus on March 16 (Nidal Eshtayeh/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images)

    We’ve got so much else on our minds just now. If it’s not Trump or Brexit, it’s former Russian spies attacked with a nerve agent on the streets of an English city or the realisation that our most intimate confidences on Facebook are not secret at all. Meanwhile, we’re only ever a couple of clicks away from someone suggesting that the hidden hand behind any and all of these horrible developments belongs to Israel or Zionism or the Jews. Just this week a local politician in Washington, DC posted a video in which he explained that heavy snowfall in the US capital was the work of…the Rothschilds. (I wish I were making that up.)

    Given all that, you might feel you have no room in your head or heart left for the plight of a few baristas in the Arad branch of the Israeli coffee chain, Aroma Espresso Bar. The manager there heard some of the staff speaking in Arabic and ordered them to stop, reportedly arguing that it compromised the dignity of customers who don’t understand the language. Aroma backed the manager and are now the subject of a campaign, backed by the New Israel Fund, that says Arabic is the language of one in five Israeli citizens and to ban them from speaking in their mother tongue is discriminatory and unfair. Those campaigners might point to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, 70 years old in May, which guarantees freedom of language.

    If this were only about one rogue coffee shop, I wouldn’t be troubling you with the details. But this particular smell is not confined to Aroma. On the contrary, the row in Arad is a small and relatively mild example of a pattern of inequality and worse that persists both inside and outside pre-1967 Israel.

    A few numbers tell the basic story. On a visit to the country earlier this month, I heard the mayor of the mainly Palestinian town of Tayibe — a moderate technocrat elected as an independent — explain how he struggles to provide education for Tayibe’s children on a budget that allocates around 460 shekels to each pupil, compared to 1600 per pupil in the nearby and mainly Jewish town of Kfar Saba.

    Later I was told that one of the biggest obstacles for Palestinian citizens of Israel keen to join the workforce is the dire state of the bus services in their towns and villages: they just can’t get around. That’s hardly a surprise when a mere 7.5 per cent of the transport budget is allocated to Arab areas, even though they make up 20 per cent of Israel’s population.Perhaps the most damning stat is that since 1948, the authorities have established 700 new towns or villages for Jewish Israelis. The total number authorised since 1948 for the one fifth of the country that is Palestinian? One.

    Naturally, all this gets much less attention than the much harsher state of affairs that persists in the territories now occupied for nearly 51 years. The basic numbers there are stark. Take a few of them, lottery style: two, 99, 12, ten and 75.

    Two is the number of legal systems that operate in the West Bank: Jews are subject to Israeli civil courts, while Palestinians are under Israeli military courts. Ninety nine refers to the percentage conviction rate for crimes prosecuted in the latter system, excluding traffic offences. (The rate is so high partly because Palestinians tend to plea-bargain to escape the clutches of the system). Twelve is the age from which Palestinian children can be prosecuted in those military courts. Hence, the viral case of Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year-old girl long detained and put on trial for slapping an Israeli soldier.

    What does the ten refer to? The fact that GDP on the West Bank is ten per cent that of next-door Israel. Meanwhile, 75 per cent of East Jerusalem residents live below the Israeli poverty line. They live in the country’s supposedly eternal and united capital, but economically they’re on a different planet.

    As I say, many JC readers will feel they’ve already got too much on their plate even to think about such things. We tend to focus on Israel when the conflict gets hot or when others are attacking the country’s right to exist; during a time of relative quiet it can recede from view. But Israel’s rulers could draw the opposite conclusion: that now they have the space to act, to make the lives of 20 per cent of their fellow citizens better and ease the pressure on those who’ve lived under military occupation for half a century.

    Of course, I long to see the occupation end altogether. But in the meantime, it would cost Israel little to allow the people of the West Bank the basic freedom to trade and travel, rights all of us would regard as essential.

    It won’t solve the conflict overnight. But nor does Israel have to wait till the conflict is solved to do the right thing. It can — it should — make a start now.

     

    Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

     

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