The illegal Israeli settlement of Pisgat Zeev, built in a suburb of the mostly Arab east Jerusalem, and the Palestinian Shuafat refugee camp, behind Israel’s controversial separation wall. (Image credit: AFP)
More than three decades ago, I lived and worked in Egypt as the country director of a multinational company. One of the annual cultural highlights was the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting in which Muslims fast every day from dawn to dusk, followed by Eid al-Fitr, when the end of Ramadan is celebrated and Muslims can eat during the day again. People come together to pray, eat, exchange gifts, and pay their respects to departed family members during these three days of festivities.
In April 1991, this event in Egypt coincided with another important national holiday in neighboring Israel, Passover, which celebrates the biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. I decided to take the opportunity to spend a short vacation in Israel and learn more about it.
The discovery of unvarnished Israel
I drove from the Egyptian capital Cairo to the Israeli border via the Sinai, which is known throughout history for having been used by foreign powers such as Israel, the Romans and the Hyksos as a staging area for attacks on Egypt. There, I had to park the car on the Egyptian side and cross the border on foot to approach the immigration officials in Israel. I left the premises once the immigration requirements were over. My plan was to first visit Tel Aviv, the vibrant economic and technological center of the country, then Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, considered holy to the three major Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and finally the Dead Sea: the lowest point on earth, offering healing mineral water, air so rich in oxygen that it protects against sunburn, oases full of rare animals and world-class historical sites that practically bring the Roman Empire back to life.
Near the government building there was a shaded area with parked cabs and further away, under the blazing sun, another row of cabs. A taxi driver wearing a kippah approached me from the shade and asked me where I wanted to go. I asked how much it would cost to get to Tel Aviv. He gave me a figure. When he saw that I wanted to get a second quote from the cab drivers under the sun, he tried to stop me by telling me that “the taxi drivers over there are not allowed to drive you“. I was taken aback and his response piqued my curiosity. So I turned to “the other side” and requested a price quote; one of them gave me a far more affordable estimate. I asked if he could take me there by car. He replied somewhat evasively, “I can take you there, but it will take a little longer as I have to take smaller country roads.”
Arab Israeli cab drivers are not allowed to drive on an Israeli holiday
So he drove with me on smaller side roads towards our destination, but after a while we were stopped at a roadside checkpoint. There he was told that he was not allowed to drive to Tel Aviv and would have to drive back. I was astonished. I asked him why he wasn’t allowed to go there. He replied: “I am an Israeli, but an Arab Israeli. If I were a Jewish Israeli, they would let me through.” — “Don’t worry,” he quickly added when he realized I was upset, “I know a way to get you there.” So he drove on narrower roads and zigzagged where there was hardly any traffic and no checkpoints.
It must have been a much longer ride than if I had taken a cab from a Jewish Israeli. In the end, he somehow managed to get me to Tel Aviv. There, in the city, a group of armed security forces suddenly ran screaming towards the cab and stopped it. They pulled the cab driver out of the car and ordered me to leave the cab. I told the officers that I was a tourist and that if anyone needed to be punished, it was me, as I had asked the cab driver to bring me here. And I offered to pay a fine on his behalf because I didn’t want to cause any harm to a poor guy who just wants to earn a living to feed his family, which he had told me about, but is discriminated against because he is not a genetically correct Israeli. The answer: “Shut up or we’ll deport you.” All right: welcome to Apartheid Israel!
The house of an Arab Israeli is taken away from him and given to a Jewish Israeli
This incident made me feel bad and very annoyed. But I continued on my journey. In Jerusalem, I wanted to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City. Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad led Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other divine messengers in ceremonial prayer after being magically transported one night from Mecca, “the holy place of worship,” to this location in Jerusalem, “the more distant place of worship,” according to the Quran (17:1).
The mosque and the square have grown to be specific sources of friction in the Arab-Israeli conflict in recent decades. In addition to its importance to Muslims, the square is significant to Jews since it was the location of the Temple of Jerusalem, which Herod destroyed in AD 70. Since then, people have made pilgrimages to the nearby Wailing Wall and the Temple Mount, as the Jews refer to the square.
As I walked up a narrow path to the mosque, I noticed an elderly man sitting on a chair in front of a small house with a large window, behind which ancient scriptures were displayed. I stopped and engaged him in a conversation about the exhibits. He told me that this was all that was left of his ancestors. Decades before, he had kept more writings in a large house next to this house until he was evicted from it by the city government. The city authorities gave his house to a rabbi and left him this much smaller house. He showed me black and white photos of his parents and other family members inside and outside of the house they once owned. I asked him if he could object to this serious act and he replied: “Only if I had been a Jewish Israeli could I have taken legal action. They always find an excuse like security requirements or whatever to justify it.”
Unfortunately, nothing has changed since then: Discrimination against Arab Israelis is still unabated, systematic and widespread.
As a child, Sari Bashi attended orthodox Jewish schools and later studied law at Yale. Despite her bright professional future, she decided to emigrate to Israel. The human rights lawyer, author, analyst and law lecturer is now also the director of Human Rights Watch in Israel.
But perhaps most importantly, this Jewish Israeli woman is married to an Arab Israeli and is raising a family as a Jewish mom with a Palestinian dad. So she knows first-hand the human rights violations and discrimination against Arab Israelis. In this interview she says:
“I’m Israeli Jewish. My partner is Palestinian. And I can do things that he can’t do. I can travel quite freely. And even though his mother is a refugee from what is now Israel, he can’t pass areas that are off limits to Palestinians. I have excellent rights. I have health. There are cities in Israel built for Jews only, and also in the West bank settlements being built for Israeli Jews only, while Palestinians are hemmed in, unable to build cities and their homes being demolished for lack of permits that are almost impossible to get. The Israeli authorities are engaging in forcible transfer, where they remove Palestinian communities in the West Bank to make room for settlements. All of these are part of the root causes of the violence. There is terrible abuses going on. You just have to listen to what people on the ground are telling you and adjust accordingly.”