How Israel practices apartheid

Oct 9, 2022
Palestinians demonstrate against Israeli occupation in Hebron
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Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, Israel has built and reinforced a single regime of rule to ensure Jewish Israeli supremacy and domination over the indigenous Palestinian people, who are politically and geographically fragmented into different categories in which they have lesser, little, or no rights in comparison to Israeli Jews depending on their status (second-class citizen, subject to military rule, or refugee). This is textbook apartheid.

In February 2022, Amnesty International joined a growing global consensus among human rights organisations, including Palestinian, Israeli, and international NGO’s, that Israel is perpetrating the crime of apartheid in its regime of domination over the Palestinian people. Amnesty International concluded that “Israel imposes a system of oppression and domination against Palestinians across all areas under its control: in Israel and the [Occupied Palestinian Territories] (OPT), and against Palestinian refugees, in order to benefit Jewish Israelis. This amounts to apartheid as prohibited in international law. Laws, policies and practices which are intended to maintain a cruel system of control over Palestinians, have left them fragmented geographically and politically, frequently impoverished, and in a constant state of fear and insecurity.”

For decades, Palestinian human rights organisations, analysts, and advocates have labeled Israel’s policies as apartheid. Some examples include Al Haq’s report Water For One People Only: Discriminatory Access and ‘Water-Apartheid’ in the OPT, Al Mezan’s Center for Human Rights report The Gaza Bantustan—Israeli Apartheid in the Gaza Strip, Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel’s report Israel’s Jewish Nation-State Law, and Addameer: Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association’s report Palestinian Prisoners and Detainees in the Face of Apartheid.

In recent years, these findings–that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people–have been reinforced by Israeli and other international human rights organisations. Some of the most consequential of these reports include the report of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid, and Human Rights Watch’s report A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.

Nobel Peace Prize laureates, iconic South African leaders in the anti-apartheid movement, a former US president, and even former Israeli prime ministers have all drawn parallels between apartheid in South Africa and Israel or warned against Israel being or becoming an apartheid state. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in an article entitled “Apartheid in the Holy Land”, wrote “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.” Nelson Mandela understood that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” Jimmy Carter wrote in Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid that Israel is engaged in “A system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel was on a “slippery slope” toward apartheid, while former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cautioned that in the absence of Palestinian statehood, Israel would “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”

Apartheid is a legal term which derives its meaning from international law, specifically from the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, a treaty which went into force in 1976. This convention makes apartheid a crime against humanity and defines it as “establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” Many Israeli policies and actions toward the Palestinian people qualify as examples of apartheid cited in the convention, including:

  • Denial of right to life and liberty, and murder
  • Serious bodily or mental harm by the infringement of freedom or dignity
  • Subjection to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • Arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment
  • Imposition of living conditions calculated to cause physical destruction
  • Denial of the right to work and the right to education
  • Denial of the right to leave and to return to one’s country
  • Denial of the right to a nationality
  • Denial of the right to freedom of movement and residence
  • Denial of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association
  • Creating separate reserves and ghettos for members of a racial group
  • Expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group

The convention also creates third-party obligations to hold criminally responsible those individuals responsible for creating and maintaining apartheid policies and rule.

Israel dominates and systematically oppresses the Palestinian people through a separate-and-unequal apartheid regime of rule between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Whether Palestinians live as second-class citizens of Israel, as refugees who are denied their right of return to their homes, or as protected persons living under a brutal and prolonged military occupation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, Israel enacts laws and military orders to privilege Israeli Jews and discriminate against indigenous Palestinians. The reports cited above provide much greater legal and factual details about the apartheid nature of Israeli laws and policies; here are three presented briefly as being emblematic of Israeli apartheid rule:

  • After its establishment in 1948, Israel expropriated large tracts of Palestinian land, turned it into state land, and, through the Jewish National Fund (JNF) Law, allowed the JNF to administer the long-term leasing of much of this land. The JNF is a private organisation which openly discriminates in its charter, stating that lands under its administration can only be leased for the benefit of Jewish people, thereby permanently alienating land from Palestinian use.
  • Before, during, and after the establishment of Israel, Zionist militias and later the Israeli military expelled Palestinians from their homes and razed hundreds of Palestinian villages; other Palestinians fled their homes under war conditions. Regardless of how these Palestinians became refugees, international law and UN resolutions guarantee them their right of return. Instead of enabling the repatriation of Palestinian refugees, Israel has vehemently denied them this right while simultaneously allowing Jewish people to immigrate to Israel and gain automatic citizenship through the so-called Law of Return.
  • Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is designed to advance its illegal colonisation of Palestinian land. Under military orders, not only does Israel expropriate Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes, and dispossess Palestinians regularly; it also does so to create Israeli-only settlements and infrastructure that Palestinians cannot access. In the process, Palestinians are ghettoised into separate-and-unequal, ever-shrinking reservations, akin to South Africa’s Bantustans.

Just as apartheid South Africa had the trappings of a liberal democracy–a parliament in which only some of the people over whom the country ruled could vote and be elected to office, a nominally independent judiciary, and a supposed commitment to the rule of law–so too does Israel maintain a veneer of democratic rule. However, Israel, just as was apartheid South Africa, is an ethnocracy–a polity designed to privilege one group and disadvantage another.

Most Palestinians–those living under perpetual Israeli military occupation or refugees who have the right to be repatriated to what is today Israel–are not enfranchised and have no say over the enactment of laws and military orders that affect them. And while Palestinian citizens of Israel serve in Israel’s parliament and Palestinians citizens have become judges, this does not change that fact that even Palestinian citizens are systematically discriminated against through more than 65 Israeli laws.

There are both many similarities and differences between apartheid South Africa’s laws and policies toward the country’s indigenous Black population and Israel’s apartheid laws and policies toward the indigenous Palestinian population. Whether Israel’s laws and policies are or are not exactly analogous to particular South African laws and policies is immaterial. As mentioned above, apartheid is a legal definition with specific examples of apartheid policies embodied in an international convention. While apartheid is a word that originated from the South African experience, its applicability today is universal. Countries engage in the crime of apartheid if their laws and actions accord with that definition and those examples.

For many decades, apartheid South Africa was viewed by the United States as a key ally in Africa, much the way Israel is viewed today by some in the United States as a key ally in the Middle East. However, thanks to the leadership of Black South Africans, key human rights and advocacy organisations in the United States, and champions in Congress, eventually Congress enacted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, a sanctions bill which had a large impact in the process of dismantling apartheid in South Africa. This bill’s purpose was to help establish a “nonracial, democratic form of government” through the imposition of sanctions, including a ban on the import of South African currency, weapons, agricultural and other commodities; a prohibition on loans to the government of South Africa and new investment therein; and an an embargo on the export of weapons to or training with the South African military.

The Palestinian civil society call for campaigns of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) for Palestinian freedom, justice, and equality are modelled on similar campaigns that played such a large role in bringing apartheid to an end in South Africa. Just as civil society boycotts and divestment efforts made great headway before the US government finally imposed sanctions on apartheid South Africa, so too in the case of Israeli apartheid, civil society has successfully boycotted and divested for Palestinian rights already. It’s now time for Congress to introduce and pass legislation to sanction Israeli apartheid, because, as is stated eloquently in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, “the policy of apartheid is abhorrent and morally repugnant”.

First published in the IMEU Policy Backgrounder on the 08 Feb 2022

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