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Israel and using “apartheid”

Talking about Israeli policies in terms of ‘apartheid’ is nothing new – you can find the claim going back at least 30 years. This kind of description for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians became increasingly common through the 1980s and ’90s, until now, nine years since the Second Intifada began, ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ is held in dozens of cities worldwide and numerous trade unions, faith groups and politicians use the term routinely.

Nevertheless, to consciously use the ‘apartheid’ framework in critiquing Israeli policies past and present, with the presumed analogy with South African history, is still considered by some to be inappropriate or even completely unacceptable.

I was aware of this when thinking about what to call my new book, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, and one of the reasons why I felt comfortable opting for the title I did, is that apartheid is a defined crime in international law, independent of any comparison with the old regime in South Africa.

In 1973, the UN’s General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, and in so doing, defined the “crime of apartheid” as acts “committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”. Some specific examples of what these ‘acts’ could look like included:

Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country… [including] the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence…

Any measures including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups…the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group…”

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), adopted in 1998, also specified the “crime of apartheid” as “inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.

Plenty of observers, academics, human rights workers, and legal experts have drawn the conclusion that based on the aforementioned definition, Israel is indeed practicing apartheid. This was the conclusion of a recent report on the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC), a study which found “that the State of Israel exercises control in the OPT with the purpose of maintaining a system of domination by Jews over Palestinians and that this system constitutes a breach of the prohibition of apartheid”.

While it is crucial then to understand that apartheid is a defined crime in international law, there is still something to be said about the comparison between South Africa and Israel. As the HSRC report pointed out, any such analysis “is there to illuminate, rather than define, the meaning of apartheid”, and there are both differences and similarities between apartheid in South Africa and Israel.

The common element of both legal systems is the intention to consolidate and enforce dispossession, securing the best land control over natural resources for one group at the expense of another. There is also the strategy of permitting native ‘autonomy’ in order to mask continued denial of national rights – the South African Bantustans, and West Bank cantons. As the late Israeli journalist Tanya Reinhart pointed out, some of the Bantustans “even had elections, Parliaments, and quasi-governmental institutions” and were allowed “symbols of sovereignty” like “a flag, postage stamps, passports and strong police force”.

There are also important differences, particularly with respects to the legal infrastructure involved in establishing and maintaining apartheid. In South Africa, blacks were a clear majority – though the Palestinians were too, until most of them were expelled. Israel also does not practice what Dr. Uri Davis has called ‘petty apartheid’, namely the obvious separation of races in public places e.g. separate toilets.

Perhaps the main difference, however, is that whereas in South Africa, the white minority depended on the economic exploitation of the black population, Israel has always preferred to simply ‘disappear’ the Palestinians (their use by Israel as a cheap labour pool is more of a fallback position). In that sense, Israeli apartheid has been worse for the native ‘other’ than in the case of South Africa.

The South Africa comparison then is meant to shed light on a political system in Palestine/Israel based on structural racism and dominance, rather than being an attempt at simply forcing an easy template on a different situation.

Leaving aside the differences and similarities with South Africa, Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians since 1948 have met the definition of apartheid in international law – with important ramifications for the responsibilities of the international community and civil society.

First published in Liberal Conspiracy.

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