HEBRON, West Bank - Veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle said last night that the restrictions endured by Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories was in some respects worse than that imposed on the black majority under white rule in South Africa.
Members of a 23-strong human-rights team of prominent South Africans cited the impact of the Israeli military's separation barrier, checkpoints, the permit system for Palestinian travel, and the extent to which Palestinians are barred from using roads in the West Bank.
After a five-day visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories, some delegates expressed shock and dismay at conditions in the Israeli-controlled heart of Hebron. Uniquely among West Bank cities, 800 settlers now live there and segregation has seen the closure of nearly 3,000 Palestinian businesses and housing units. Palestinian cars (and in some sections pedestrians) are prohibited from using the once busy streets.
"Even with the system of permits, even with the limits of movement to South Africa, we never had as much restriction on movement as I see for the people here," said an ANC parliamentarian, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge of the West Bank. "There are areas in which people would live their whole lifetime without visiting because it's impossible."
Mrs Madlala-Routledge, a former deputy health minister in President Thabo Mbeki's government, added: "While I want to be careful not to characterise everything that I see here as apartheid, I just do find comparisons in a number of places. I also find differences."
Comparisons with apartheid have long been anathema to majority Israeli opinion, though they have been somewhat less taboo since the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, last year warned that without an early two-state agreement Israel could face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights.
Fatima Hassan, a leading South African human rights lawyer, said: "The issue of separate roads, [different registration] of cars driven by different nationalities, the indignity of producing a permit any time a soldier asks for it, and of waiting in long queues in the boiling sun at checkpoints just to enter your own city, I think is worse than what we experienced during apartheid." She was speaking after the tour, which included a visit to the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem and a meeting with Israel's Chief Justice, Dorit Beinisch.
One prominent member of the delegation, who declined to be named, said South Africa had been "much poorer" both during and after apartheid than the Palestinian territories. But he added: "The daily indignity to which the Palestinian population is subjected far outstrips the apartheid regime. And the effectiveness with which the bureaucracy implements the repressive measures far exceed that of the apartheid regime."
Members of the delegation - the first of its kind - visited Nablus as well as towns and villages bordering the separation barrier, including Na'alin where a temporary curfew was imposed after joint Israeli-Palestinian demonstrations against the barrier.
The visit was organised by Israeli human rights groups which co-operate with Palestinians committed to non-violent campaigns against Israeli occupation.
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In Hebron's main Shuhada Street, the South African delegation was plunged into a confrontation after one of the local settlers' leaders disrupted the tour by unleashing a barrage of abuse through a megaphone at one of the Israeli guides. Amid angry arguments, police arrested three of the Israeli guides.
Mrs Madlala Routledge exclaimed: "This is ridiculous. Why are they arresting our guides and leaving the man with the megaphone?"
Dennis Davis, a high court judge and one of the South African delegation's several Jewish members, told the extreme right-wing Hebron settlers' leader Baruch Marzel: "These provocations didn't come from us. I'm Jewish and I look at this and I say to myself, how can I feel fear from other Jews?"
Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC parliament member, said that the visit to Yad Vashem had been "extremely moving" because his mother had been a Holocaust survivor who lost many members of her family. "As you walk into Yad Vashem you see a quote that says in effect you should know a country not only by what it does but what it tolerates," he said. "So I found it very shocking to then come and here and see footage of teenagers heaping abuse on Palestinian children as they come out of school, and throwing stones at them. And that this should be done in the name of Judaism I find totally reprehensible.
"What the Holocaust teaches us more than anything else is that we must never turn our heads away in the face of injustice."
The delegation's final formal statement made no mention of comparisons with apartheid and Judge Davis said he thought the use of the term in the Middle East context was "very unhelpful".
He added: "The level of social control I've seen here, separate roads, different number plates [between Palestinian and Israeli cars] may well be more cynically pernicious than what we have ever had. But this is a country that is really about how there is going to be divorce and we were always a marriage." Ms Hassan herself said she thought the apartheid comparison was a potential "red herring".
Israelis point out there are no South-African-style laws segregating Israeli and East Jerusalem Arabs from Israeli Jews in public spaces.
The delegation yesterday urged international support for the "new and small movement of Palestinian-Israeli joint non-violent struggle". And its members stressed their understanding of Israeli security needs. Mr Feinstein said: "I completely understand the fears of Israelis ... but at the same time we have seen for ourselves and been told about all sorts of measures that don't seem to be in terms of security and in some instances could if anything undermine security of state."
The delegation also visited the Parents' Circle - a joint organisation of Israeli and Palestinian families bereaved by the conflict. Ms Hassan said this had been at once the most "depressing and inspiring" visit of the trip.
© 2008 The Independent