The Human Rights Watch’s decision to label Israel’s actions in the West Bank as apartheid predictably triggered many people. But to be fair, the HRW was rather late to the party.
During the last few years, many have taken notice of the inescapable similarities between the occupation and the apartheid regime in South Africa, including South Africans themselves – in a 2009 legal study commissioned by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa. Illuminating and rather unbiased, it absolves Israel from certain aspects of the crime of apartheid, but the verdict is still clear. Hence, people with first-hand experience of apartheid have spoken.
Two years earlier, in a 2007 report, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Palestine John Dugard stated that “elements of the Israeli occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid, which are contrary to international law”.
A 2017 report, commissioned and approved by the UN, arrives at the same conclusion. In 2020, an Israeli NGO Yesh Din invoked the “A-word”, and earlier this year, famously, B’tselem added its authoritative voice to the chorus.
Finally, a recent survey by Brookings Institute of 521 scholars with expertise in Middle East affairs found that 59% of them describe the current Israeli-Palestinian situation as “a one-state reality akin to apartheid.”
This is a grave accusation. Not only is apartheid a crime punishable under international law. As Alon Pinkas correctly notes in his recent op-ed in Haaretz aimed against the apartheid comparison, “apartheid is a vile, objectionable, ugly and racist system that Israelis find profoundly disgusting and offensive to even be mentioned in connection with.” Simply put, people sometimes prefer blaming the mirror.
But let us be honest: racism is rampant in Israeli society, according to multiple polls and studies. This poll found that a majority of Israelis support apartheid practices if the West Bank was to be annexed, as well as curtailing the rights of the current Arab citizens.
I understand the desire to shield Israel from accusations. But hiding our heads in the sand will not do us any good. Dismantling the occupation will. Therefore, with a heavy heart, I must counter Pinkas’ arguments.
The occupation, he begins, “does not constitute structural, by-design apartheid”, since “the occupation, or Israel’s control of the territories, is a by-default phenomenon.” But every nut and bolt in the intricate system of occupation was devised and put in place by the state of Israel. How can a state unintentionally create a system of legal and physical separation between two ethnic groups?
The second argument states that “there is absolutely no ‘racial’ component or ‘racial domination’ ideology driving Israeli policies” and “it is not based on racial hierarchy.”
This should not fool anyone, especially the American reader who knows that Jim Crow era disenfranchisement laws (similarly to some initiatives promoted by the Republican party today) targeted Black people specifically and precisely without explicitly stating it. There are many ways to discriminate covertly but efficiently based on race or ethnicity. If Palestinians in the West Bank are non-citizens (because the state that governs them prefers to keep it that way), and Jews are citizens, any discriminatory practices against non-citizens are de-facto racist. There is no way to whitewash it.
But this overlap is not perfect. There are other non-citizens in Israel – permanent residents, tourists. All of them can visit West Bank settlements and even live there – unlike the second category of non-citizens, the Palestinians. Moreover, this privileged status is automatically granted to any Jew, even to those residing in the Palestinian Autonomy. It means that an ethnically Jewish journalist based in Ramallah is allowed to the segregated paradise of the Jewish settlements, while Palestinians, whose land was expropriated to build those settlements, are not.
This is just a tiny aspect of the two vastly different legal systems that exist in the West Bank, according to the reputable Association of Civil Rights in Israel. Jews get to be treated by the legal system that is almost an exact copy of the Israeli one, with its enlightened laws and independent courts. Palestinians, on the other hand, are subject to Israeli military law, administered by military courts. This second legal system is much harsher and is widely considered unfair. Even driving violations are processed by these two different systems, with Palestinians receiving much less protection and much harsher punishments.
But the state can bend the rules if it wants to. Israeli citizens may still be judged by a military court if the prosecution decides that this citizen and their crime are “mostly connected to the (occupied) territories”. Unsurprisingly, all Israeli citizens who have ever been diverted to the military court system were Arabs. Moreover, the ACRI has not found a single case, when an Israeli Arab citizen’s request to be judged by a civilian court for a crime committed in the West Bank was granted.
Hence, the real yardstick is clearly not citizenship, but ethnicity. Whenever Israel gets a chance to pile its Arab citizens together with the rightless West Bank Palestinians, it does so. Jews, on the other hand, even if they are neither Israeli citizens nor residents, enjoy a much better treatment.
But can’t we just forget about the whole thing because it is sort of temporary? “Since June 1967”, Pinkas writes, “Israel expressed time and time again that its control of the territories was temporary”. Sadly, this is both not true and irrelevant.
Indeed, between 1967 and 1977 there was no intention to keep all the territories, just a big chunk of them (the Alon plan). Yet, after becoming prime minister, Menachem Begin stated clearly and on multiple occasions that Israel would never allow any foreign sovereignty, Jordanian or Palestinian, between the river and the sea. Instead, Begin offered Palestinians an autonomy, tightly supervised by Israel. I have an analogy for such a castrated pseudo-state, but I am afraid Alon Pinkas would not like it: Bantustans.
This denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination, including by Rabin who famously said that Palestinians will get “less than a state”, would continue until 2000 when Barak made the first proposal that included provisions for a Palestinian state. Yet, this informal offer lacked both popular and parliamentary support. Ariel Sharon was forced into accepting the concept of a Palestinian state as a part of G.W. Bush’s Roadmap, and later Netanyahu would half-heartedly mention it in his Bar-Ilan speech, but, obviously, none of them were serious about it. The only other time when Palestinians were offered a state was in Annapolis in 2008, by Ehud Olmert. Under Trump’s peace plan, to get a non-contiguous state with heavily curtailed sovereignty, Palestinians first would have to prove themselves worthy of it.
The phenomenon of settlements rips the temporariness argument apart. If you are just waiting for a proper peace partner to emerge, why build settlements at all? Why pour tens of billions of dollars into the land expropriation, the construction, the infrastructure, the security? Why lure your own citizens into living there, including in the thick of the Palestinian population? If you yearn for a solution, why make it all but impossible with the settlement drive that continued mostly unimpeded under every Israeli government?
It is true, that, as Pinkas notes, Israel never annexed the West Bank and Gaza, but he gets the reason wrong. “Had (Israel) had any aspirations to eternally control the Palestinians, it would have done so”, he writes. Oh, please. Israel never did that because it would endanger the Jewish demographic dominance and provoke a more serious backlash than Israel can afford.
The occupation is a balancing act, a bone that Israel would neither swallow nor spit out, so it has been stuck in our throat for more than half a century. You can call this situation temporary, but more than two generations of Palestinians were born into this reality. Should its supposed temporariness give them any consolation? Does it fundamentally alter the nature of the regime they live under? I hardly think so.
In his much-talked-of essay “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama”, Nathan Thrall recounts a story from the 1970s originally told by Meron Benvenisti, a former Jerusalem deputy mayor. At a lunch with Benvenisti and another high-ranked Israeli, a South-African official, impressed with the system that Israel was building in the occupied territories, asked his interlocutors if they would be interested in advising on the new regime in Transkei, one of the Bantustans. “His query implied that he considered our work comparable with their reactionary, racist schemes in the Bantustans”, Benvenisti recalls. “When we expressed our indignation, he smiled and said, ‘I understand your reaction. But aren’t we actually doing the same thing? We are faced with the same existential problem, therefore we arrive at the same solution.’”