There have been numerous debates surrounding whether Israel subscribes to an apartheid ideology in its treatment of Palestinians, or not. Several political, social, and global commentators have expressed their opinions on this issue with varied outcomes (Honest Reporting 2017; Havardi 2016; Reimann 2017). Scholars, humanitarian organizations and the United Nations (UN) have also contributed to this discussion by critically evaluating Israel’s policy on the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories (West Bank and Gaza) and within the Israeli sovereign state (Pappé 2015; Jacobs & Soske 2015). These observers have either supported, or opposed, the view that Israel is an apartheid state.
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In this paper, the apartheid analogy stems from the application of discriminatory policies on Palestinians, by the Jews, as was the case with how white supremacists treated black people in South Africa. The comparison started in 1961 when Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of South Africa’s apartheid policies, drew several comparisons between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and South Africa’s treatment of non-whites in the apartheid era (Havardi 2016). Based on these comparisons, many international observers started to use the apartheid analogy to describe, or analyse, the conflict between Israel and Palestine (Cole 2017; Honest Reporting 2017; Havardi 2016; Reimann 2017).
In the 1970s, several Arab-based magazines fuelled this analogy by comparing Israel’s’ actions in the occupied territories to the Bantustan strategy in South Africa, at the time (Cohen 2014). Several Palestinian scholars adopted the same view and started spreading the notion that Israel was applying some form of latent apartheid against Palestinians (Cohen 2014). Some academicians and activists started including this view in their literary works throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when conflict between Israel and Palestine was at its peak. This analogy became more prominent in the 1990s, when Israel gave limited self-governance powers to Palestinians living in occupied territories (Cook 2013). By 2013, many international observers started to normalize this analogy in their works and assessment of Israel’s policies in occupied territories. This paper critically assesses the ideology that Israel is an apartheid state, from a legal perspective, by comparing and contrasting arguments made by scholars, academicians, and international bodies on the subject. Through a review of both views, we argue that Israel is an apartheid state.
Support for the Apartheid Analogy
System of Control Policy in the Occupied Territories
Critics believe that the branding of Israel as an apartheid state stems from the system of control policy that it applies in settlements close to the Israel-Palestinian border (IBP, Inc. 2015; Cook 2013). The West Bank comes into sharp focus when reviewing this policy because this is where most critics have found evidence of its use. The use of identification cards and the establishment of several military checks on different roads support the assessment that Israel is using the system of control policy to discriminate against Palestinians (IBP, Inc. 2015). The establishment of different roads for Israeli and Palestinian citizens also reinforces the same view because it is similar to how white supremacists in South Africa set up different transportation systems for white people and non-whites.
The existence of a marriage law prohibiting Israelis from marrying Palestinians is also another area of similarity between present-day Israel and South Africa’s apartheid era because white people in South Africa also prohibited white people from marrying non-whites. People who view Israel as an apartheid state often cite prohibitive marriage laws as another area of similarity between Israel’s apartheid analogy and South Africa’s application of the concept (Abunimah 2014). At the centre of their arguments is a legal provision that allows Israeli-Jews to bring their spouses to Israel, but at the same time denying Israelis who have married Palestinians to bring their spouses to Israel. Many researchers who have investigated this issue in-depth have revealed that in the Israel-Palestinian context, Palestinians are regarded as an “independent race” (Reimann 2017; Cole 2017). Comprehensively, people who support the apartheid analogy in Israel say the state subscribes to the ideology of limited social interaction between its citizens and Palestinians, thereby drawing significant comparisons to the same policy adopted in apartheid South Africa.
Similar to the South African law prohibiting non-whites from owning factors of production, Israel also has a law that forbids Israeli citizens from selling land to Palestinians (Abunimah 2014). This law stems from the actions of the Colonial Jewish National Fund. It states that land owned by a Zionist institution or by an Israeli citizen will be taken off the market if the owner intends to sell it to a Palestinian (Pappé 2015). The law of return is another policy practiced by the Israeli government, which prohibits Palestinian nationals who had been expelled from their ancestral land in Israel from coming back home (Reimann 2017). However, the same law allows Jews to come to Israel whenever they wish. Israel has justified the selective application of this law by using near racist terminologies to bar Palestinians from going back home. According to Abunimah (2014), Israel claims that Palestinians create a “demographic threat” to Israel. Thus, if they are allowed to go back to occupied territories, they may cause the demographic disappearance of Israel as a Jewish state (Cook 2013). This concept of self-preservation through land injustices has highlighted the view that Israel subscribes to an apartheid ideology.
Selective Application of Laws in Occupied Territories
A UN report investigating claims of apartheid practices in Israel identified a group of 300,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem and found that they experience discrimination on different economic and social fronts, including education, health care and employment (Reimann 2017; Cole 2017). The same report points out that this group of Palestinians is suffering under a selective application of laws that deny them the same residency rights and building rights that the Jews enjoy (Reimann 2017; Cole 2017). According to the IBP, Inc. (2015), a larger group of Palestinians, numbering 4.7 million, who live in West Bank and Gaza, suffers the same injustice because they are subjected to a selective application of laws that affect their economic and social wellbeing. The Israelis are subject to civil law, while the Palestinians are subject to martial law (IBP, Inc. 2015). In other words, there is a dual governance system in the occupied territories, which treat Israelis and Palestinians differently (Cook 2013).
This view is backed by a recent UN report that affirmed the existence of apartheid laws in the occupied territories (Reimann 2017; Cole 2017). Particularly, it pointed out that the application of martial law on 4.6 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories was evidence enough that apartheid was rife in West Bank and Gaza (IBP, Inc. 2015). Demographically, this law affected 2.7 million and 1.9 million Palestinians living in West Bank and the Gaza strip, respectively (Reimann 2017; Cole 2017). The UN report also points out that these settlements are being governed by Israel in a way that fully meets the criterion for defining an apartheid state (Reimann 2017; Cole 2017). Except for the existence of genocide, the report points out that the Israeli government practices all manner of inhumane acts outlined by Amnesty International (2016). Indeed, as Abunimah (2014) observes, the 350,000 Israelis living in West Bank enjoy the protection of Israeli civil law, merely based on their race and Jewish status. The dual legal system is deemed problematic in the process of seeking peace between Israel and Palestine because, combined with discriminatory practices in marriage, land ownership and residency status; it is difficult to convince Palestinians that they are equal partners in the peace process.
Criticisms of the Apartheid Analogy
Proponents of Israel often believe that the portrayal of Israel as an apartheid state is fundamentally wrong because of many technical and moral reasons. For instance, they have tried to delegitimize the arguments that Israel uses the system of control policy in the occupied territories to oppress Palestinians because these territories are not technically in sovereign Israel (Cook 2013). Instead, they argue that these territories, where these laws apply, are fundamentally under the Palestinian government (Havardi 2016). Using this argument, they say it is unfair to compare Israel’s system of control to the apartheid policy in South Africa.
Differences between Israel and South Africa’s Policies
Those who do not believe Israel shares the same apartheid analogy as South Africa say there are significant differences in policies between both states. For example, they point out that the policies practiced by Israel in the occupied territories are largely nationalistic and colonial (Havardi 2016). Comparatively, those practiced by the South African regime were broadly post-colonialist and fundamentally racial (Rotich, Ilieva & Walunywa 2015). In other words, they were based on a policy fuelled by racial criteria as the basis for treating whites and non-white citizens. Consequently, people who do not support the view that Israel is an apartheid state argue that the country’s laws are not focused on people’s race, religion or creed (Havardi 2016). In other words, they say Israel’s laws do not make specific references to citizen categories. Comparatively, South Africa’s apartheid laws were notably specific on people’s race, as a basis of how they would be treated (Rotich, Ilieva & Walunywa 2015).
Pro-Israeli scholars also point out that Israel is fundamentally a democracy that allows Arabs to vote (Havardi 2016). Apartheid South Africa had different policies that prevented the majority black population from voting. White supremacists in South Africa used apartheid as a racially motivated practice, legitimized by a similarly racially biased legislature, which had the support of the police, to implement their wishes. Apartheid South Africa used apartheid to “protect” the minority population from the majority black population (Rotich, Ilieva & Walunywa 2015). Comparatively, Israel is a majority-rule democracy that recognizes all citizens’ rights to vote. In response to the prejudices against Palestinians living in Israel, pro-Israeli scholars argue that such prejudices are similar to others found in other democracies around the world, including the UK and the US (Cook 2013). Furthermore, they say, unlike South African laws that legitimized such prejudices; Israel’s laws do not condone them (Havardi 2016).
Regarding the selective application of laws in occupied territories, the pro-Israeli supporters say Palestinians living in these regions are not under Israeli law, but under Palestinian authority (Havardi 2016). Honest Reporting (2017), a pro-Israeli rights group supports this view by saying that although Jews are the majority population in Israel, the minority Arab population in the country has ascended to high political offices and taken part in the country’s legislative processes. This is unlike South Africa, which had a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding the participation of non-whites in the country’s legislative or political processes (Rotich, Ilieva & Walunywa 2015). This human rights group also points out that apartheid South Africa dictated what kinds of jobs black South Africans could do, where they could live, and where they could travel. The same is false for Israel because the government allows for freedom of movement, assembly, and to vote (Honest Reporting 2017). Comparatively, when black South Africans demanded for these rights, or opposed the policies of the apartheid regime, they were killed (Rotich, Ilieva & Walunywa 2015). The same is not true for Israel in their treatment of Palestinian opposition.
Benjamin Progrund (cited in Pappé 2015, p. 99) supports the same view by pointing out that the differences between the application of laws in apartheid South Africa and present-day Israel are different, at a basic level. For example, he explains that Israeli and Arab babies are born in the same hospitals with the help of the same health care staff (Pappé 2015). The same was unheard of in apartheid South Africa. Similarly, since Arabs and Israeli share restaurants, travel using the same modes of transport, and even visit each other, Havardi (2016) finds it hard to believe that Israel is an apartheid state. Concisely, he affirms that such freedoms are not possible in an apartheid state.
Differences in Motivations between Israel and South Africa
Some people who support Israel’s actions in the occupied territories often hold the view that the government does not participate in any form of apartheid because the motivations for discrimination in Israel are not the same as those evidenced in South Africa (Pappé 2015; Cook 2013). Contrary to popular view, they say that Israel is the victim of discrimination by Arabs and not the other way around where Israelis discriminate against the Arabs (Pappé 2015; Cook 2013). Stated differently, they believe that the Palestinians have been the main aggressors in the conflict and Israel’s actions are only defensive. In other words, proponents of this view say that Israel is not motivated to discriminate against the Palestinians because of their biological differences; instead, it is pursuing a nationalist agenda. This is unlike the South African case where apartheid was based on biological differences between white people and black people (Rotich, Ilieva & Walunywa 2015). Pro-Israeli observers also take issue with the fact that Israel’s nationalist agenda is being characterized with apartheid rhetoric, while other countries, such as Kosovo and Bosnia, have experienced the same type of conflict, responded in a similar manner as Israel did, and escaped the apartheid tag (Abunimah 2014; Pappé 2015; Cook 2013).
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The Selective Application of Law is Temporary
According to Havardi (2016), most of Israel’s laws against Palestinian occupation and residency status in Israel are temporary. Therefore, they do not amount to an outright declaration of the existence of apartheid. Pappé (2015) points out that the selective application of laws in the occupied territories is only a temporary problem occasioned by an ongoing and changing security situation. Therefore, he deems it unfair to brand Israel as an apartheid state because there is no permanency in the current laws. The same researcher adds to the debate surrounding the differences in treatment of Palestinians and Israelis inside Israel by saying that the country is under no obligation to treat Palestinians as native citizens (Pappé 2015). Havardi (2016) justifies these claims by saying that Israel can exercise its right to remain a Jewish state because it is not obligated to treat “outsiders” as equals. Comprehensively, these views explain why some people do not accept the apartheid analogy in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Although some people argue that Israel’s laws are non-discriminatory because of the democratic ideals associated with the state, it is difficult to ignore the many similarities between Israel’s discriminatory policies on Palestinians and those adopted in apartheid South Africa on black people. Granted, some of the actions of the Israeli government are not as harsh, or directly targeted towards the Palestinians, but it is safe to say they are largely discriminatory. Backed by the US and other western nations, Israel’s apartheid actions have been masked as “defensive strategies.” Few international bodies refrain from reprimanding it because of the fear of a backlash from the world’s major powers that fund these institutions in the first place. In another spectrum of analysis, we find that there is a difference between how Israel’s discrimination policies differ with other forms of discrimination in western democracies because Israel’s policies are based in law. Indeed, although pro-Israeli human right groups say, Israel’s policies are different from those seen in apartheid South Africa; we find that these laws still favour Jews, with a particular bias against Arabs. For example, Israel has created immense benefits for its citizens and made it mandatory for Jews to have them. However, it does not make it mandatory for Arabs to enjoy the same.
Acts of aggression by Israel in the occupied territories are against human rights principles because they overlook the fundamental rights of Palestinians in favour of the Jews. Indeed, it is difficult to deny that Israel has consistently applied laws and governance principles that closely symbolize those of apartheid South Africa. More importantly, Israel denies Palestinians the right to self-determination, as has been highlighted in various UN-backed reports, such as that highlighted by Cole (2017).
Furthermore, in this paper, we have seen that many discriminatory laws prohibiting land ownership, intermarriage, and free movement (especially in the occupied territories) are still practiced by the Israeli government. They are closely similar to laws prohibiting social interactions between whites and non-whites in apartheid South Africa. Therefore, I believe the views held by pro-Israeli scholars are flimsy and, at best, diversionary because they are stuck on technicalities and formalities that fail to gain traction in practice. Israel’s actions in the Gaza strip and West Bank highlight their aggressive nature, which has been legitimized by strict laws limiting free movement and social interactions between Jews and Palestinians. The imposition of martial law on the Palestinians is by far the greatest indicator that Israel is slowly drifting towards being an apartheid state (IBP, Inc. 2015). My view on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, viz-a-viz the ideology that Israel could be an apartheid state closely resemble the views of Reimann (2017) and Cole (2017) in their assessment of the same issue. They say Israel continues to exhibit apartheid-like tendencies, if our assessment was to include their actions in the occupied territories of Gaza and West Bank. There is no safeguard to know how far Israel can go in formulating similar apartheid-like laws, but, currently, Israel’s policies are closely similar to those of colonial South Africa.
While there may be similarities between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the treatment of black people in apartheid South Africa, it is equally important to recognize the unique security issues that Israel faces in the Arab World. Essentially, Israel is a western democracy and many of its neighbours perceive it as such. Most Arab nations surrounding Israel also see it as a “western outpost” in the Arab peninsula because it is regarded as a home to the Jewish people. Therefore, it faces unique security issues, especially from Jihadist groups based in the Middle East who do not wish to tolerate its existence. However, regardless of the danger posed by some of these religious fundamentalists, in this paper, we argue that it is unfair to subject an entire population of Palestinians to the actions of a few people. Such is the fear that has guided Israel’s policies and governance systems on security matters. Today, such fears have brought Israel’s policies closer to an apartheid regime more than ever before.
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