Israeli human rights group B’Tselem made the headlines this week when it released a new paper in which – for the first time – it described Israel as an apartheid state. The paper is titled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”.
In one succinct and accurate passage, B’Tselem explains that, “The Israeli regime, which controls all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, seeks to advance and cement Jewish supremacy throughout the entire area.” To this end, Israel “has divided the area into several units, each with a different set of rights for Palestinians – always inferior to the rights of Jews. As part of this policy, Palestinians are denied many rights, including the right to self-determination.”
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are denied even the most basic human and political rights by the Israeli occupation regime which dominates every aspect of their lives. And yet, B’Tselem points out, “More than 14 million people, roughly half of them Jews and the other half Palestinians, live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea under a single rule.” In other words, the “democratic” government in Israel and the occupation government denying Palestinians their rights are one and the same entity.
I’ve often said that when we call Israel an apartheid regime it is no mere analogy. We are not simply seeking to associate Israel in the public consciousness with apartheid-era South Africa, as accurate a comparison as that may be.
The fact is that apartheid is a recognised crime under international law, and Israel meets the criteria of an apartheid state accordingly. Treaties and conventions to this effect were and are not restricted to the South African regime. They include the UN’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, established in 1973, as well as the Rome Statute – the International Criminal Court’s foundational document.
It is true of course that the word apartheid is an Afrikaans word, meaning “separateness”. The White Supremacist state which ruled South Africa at the time actually used it as a form of spin intended to disguise their brutal racist policies.
The architect of apartheid, Prime Minster Hendrik Verwoerd (1901-1966), once complained that his policy of violent racial segregation, displacement and dispossession had been “misunderstood”. It was only “a policy of good neighbourliness. Accepting that there are differences between people,” he claimed.
Of course, as in the Jim Crow South in the US, such claims of “separate but equal” rang hollow. By the time apartheid was defeated by the South African masses and their global allies in 1994, the term had practically become a byword for evil. The attempt to spin it as “good neighbourliness” had failed utterly.
It is no wonder then, that PR-conscious Israel wants nothing whatsoever to do with the word. However, if the cap fits — and it does — then Israel must wear it.
B’Tselem is far from the first to use the term to describe the settler-colonial state. Palestinians have been using it for decades. While I suppose it’s better late than never, B’Tselem doesn’t deserve extra praise for recognising such an obvious truth long enshrined in Israel’s legal system.
As my colleague at The Electronic Intifada, Maureen Murphy, pointed out this week, B’Tselem’s paper misses several important points. Among them is the central plank of the way that Israeli apartheid discriminates against Palestinians by denying them their legitimate right of return to their homeland.
Israel expelled some 800,000 Palestinians by force between 1947 and 1949 (this is known as the Nakba, or Catastrophe) in order to establish its Jewish supremacist state. Since then, the original refugees and their millions of descendants have been systematically barred from returning to their homes in historic Palestine, simply because they are not Jews. The latter, no matter where they were born, have an automatic right under Israeli law to live in occupied Palestine with full citizenship rights, simply because they are Jews.
Another key point that B’Tselem misses is that Israel has always been an apartheid state. The Israeli apartheid regime is not simply something that “has existed for more than 50 years” as the report appears to suggest. Israeli apartheid has existed for almost 73 years, ever since the foundation of the state in 1948, on top of the mass graves of Palestinians and the rubble of their homes, villages and towns, more than 500 of which have been wiped off the map by Israel.
As dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappé explains in his important 2011 book The Forgotten Palestinians, in 1948 Israel immediately established a military regime against its Palestinian “citizens”, denying some of their most basic human rights. That this military dictatorship targeted Palestinian Arabs alone, and not Israeli Jews, is clear evidence that Israel was an apartheid regime from the minute that it declared its “independence”.
This military regime was only ended – after persistent resistance from Palestinians themselves – in 1966. A few short months later Israel invaded and occupied the remaining 22 per cent of historic Palestine, which it had been unable to steal in 1948.
After the 1967 Six Day War, Israel imposed a military dictatorship – we call it the occupation – over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It remains in place to this day. B’Tselem certainly did not go far enough in its report; Israel has always been an apartheid state.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.