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What Does it Mean to Call Israel an Apartheid State?

Issue 283

A step-by-step look at how apartheid was pioneered in South Africa and replicated by Israel.

Ellen Davidson Nov 3, 2023

What does it mean to call Israel an apartheid state?

The word, meaning literally “apartness,” originally referred to policies introduced in South Africa in 1948. Although presented as a path of equal but separate development of racial groups in that country, like “separate but equal” in this country, it was anything but.

Under apartheid people were classified as “native,” “colored,” “Asian” or “white,” and these designations determined access to land, schools, resources, etc. Apartheid laws served to reserve the vast majority of the land for white South Africans, relocating the non-white population to so-called “bantustans” far from the areas they had lived in for many years. In the white-controlled areas, nonwhites were denied political rights, including the right to vote, since they were considered citizens of the ostensibly independent “homelands” set up by the apartheid government, which consisted of small unviable enclaves with no resources or opportunities for work or economic development.

The system also included identity cards that nonwhite people had to carry in order to live, work, or even travel in particular parts of the country. These notorious “pass laws” were the main instrument of control and existed until 1986.

This web of restrictive laws was enforced by a brutal police state, and thousands of South Africans, mainly Black and “colored,” were imprisoned, tortured or killed.

After decades of internal resistance both armed and nonviolent, and an international campaign to isolate South Africa economically and politically, the laws were repealed in the early 1990s and a new constitution was adopted in 1993.

Apartheid now refers to any system of racial segregation and is deemed a crime against humanity by the U.N. Apartheid Convention.

So why have Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Israeli human rights group Bet’selem and many others declared Israel to be an apartheid state? One of the central tenets of the South African system was dispossession from the land and control of resources by white settlers. Israel has replicated this process. In Israel/Palestine, the land that is nominally under Palestinian control constitutes 22% of historic Palestine. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were made permanent exiles in 1947–48, as Zionist militias terrorized and massacred whole villages. Many more were forced out by the invasion in 1967, when the Israeli army took over the West Bank and Gaza in an occupation that continues to this day.

There are three levels of sterilization: Palestinians may not open businesses on the street, Palestinians may not drive vehicles on the street, and Palestinians may not walk on the street, even if their home is on that street.

Even the land that is supposed to make up an eventual Palestinian state, according to proponents of a two-state solution, is not contiguous; it is divided between the Occupied West Bank and Gaza, which, although not technically occupied, is blockaded on both its land and sea borders by Israel. The West Bank itself is split up into enclaves increasingly surrounded by and encroached on by Israeli settlements. It is further atomized by Israel’s “separation barrier” (which Palestinians call the apartheid wall), which at times goes through the center of villages (in one case through the middle of an elementary school playground) and cuts off farmers from their agricultural lands. The territory is riddled with checkpoints and other military installations, and criss-crossed with roads that are reserved for Israeli settlers. There are numerous laws both inside Israel’s formal borders and in the Occupied Territories that make clear the second-class status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens and residents of the West Bank and Gaza. Just to mention a few:

  • In 2021 the Israeli parliament adopted the Jewish Nation-State Law, which identifies Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish people, thus formalizing the inferior status of the Palestinian people. The Supreme Court of Israel upheld the law. The current government holds as one of its guiding principles: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right over all areas of the Land of Israel.”
  • Jews from anywhere in the world are eligible to become citizens of Israel while holding on to their previous citizenship. Non-Jews can apply for citizenship, but they must renounce their previous citizenship, must have lived for three years as a permanent resident, must and demonstrate knowledge of the Hebrew language (Israel is nominally a bilingual state, Arabic and Hebrew). Palestinian refugees who were born in what has since become Israel are not allowed to return and claim citizenship.
  • Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are increasingly cut off from life in their city by the wall snaking through it. As it becomes impossible for them to get to commercial and other districts, they turn to other areas for their needs, they risk losing their Jerusalem residency permits and access to the city and government services.
  • Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are subject to arbitrary “administrative detention” for up to six months, at which point their detention can be renewed, leading to many Palestinians being held in prison for years on end with no charge and no legal recourse.
  • Resources in the Occupied West Bank are disproportionately allocated to the Israeli settlements. For example, settlements use up to 10 times as much water per capita as Palestinian communities, and the Palestinians are charged higher prices.
  • Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to the control of the Israeli military, whereas residents of illegal Israeli settlements in the region are not. In fact, rules of engagement for Israeli military in the West Bank forbid them from firing on or arresting Israeli settlers, even when they are armed and violent.
  • Palestinians in Gaza have no freedom of movement at all. The entire region is blockaded by Israel, which controls travel in and out.
  • Palestinian homes both inside Israel and in the West Bank are under constant threat of demolition because Israeli authorities deny building permits to Palestinians (Al-Araqib, a Bedouin village in the Negev, has been demolished more than 200 times since 2010). Israeli settlements on the West Bank, which are illegal under international law, are protected by the Israeli military.
  • Because of the presence of Jewish settlers, many streets in the city of Hebron are off-limits to the Palestinian residents. They are called “sterilized” by the IDF. There are three levels of sterilization: Palestinians may not open businesses on the street, Palestinians may not drive vehicles on the street, and Palestinians may not walk on the street, even if their home is on that street. The city is dotted with ladders between rooftops used to access homes whose residents cannot walk in or out their own front doors.

These are just some examples of the daily repression and humiliation faced by Palestinians inside Israel and under occupation. No wonder South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in 2014, “I know first-hand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed.”

In a call to replicate the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign that ultimately helped bring an end to South Africa’s racist regime, he said, “Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of ‘normalcy’ in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo.”

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