Israel/Palestine and the Apartheid Analogy: Critics, Apologists and Strategic lessons (Part 1)

I.  Introduction

In the last decade, the notion that the Israeli system of political and military control bears strong resemblance to the apartheid system in South Africa has gained ground.  It is invoked regularly by movements and activists opposed to the 1967 occupation and to various other aspects of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Arab people.  It is denounced regularly by official Israeli spokespersons and unofficial apologists.  The more empirical and theoretical discussion of the nature of the respective regimes and their historical trajectories has become marginalized in the process.  Only a few studies pursue such comparison with any analytical rigour.1

There are three crucial distinctions we must make in order to address the issue properly and avoid the usual conceptual and political muddle that afflict the debate:

1.  We need to consider which Israel is our topic of concern: Israel as it exists today, with boundaries extending from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan, or Israel as it existed before 1967, along the Green Line?  Is it Israel as a state that encompasses all its citizens, within the Green Line and beyond?  Israel as it defines itself, or as it is defined by others?  And which definition is legitimate according to international law?  Are the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 part of the definition or an element external to it?  Which boundaries (geographical, political, ideological and moral) are most relevant for our discussion?  What are their implications for our understanding of the nature of the regime and its relation to various groups in the population subject to it?

Each definition of the situation carries with it different consequences for the analysis of the apartheid analogy.  Perhaps the central question in this respect is the relationship between three components: ‘Israel proper’ (within its pre-1967 boundaries), ‘Greater Israel’ (within the post-1967 boundaries), and ‘Greater Palestine’ (a demographic rather than geographic concept, covering all Arabs who trace their origins to pre-1948 Palestine).  While discussion of the relationship between the first two components is common, the third component — and its relevance to the apartheid analogy — is usually ignored.

2.  We need to distinguish between historical apartheid (the specific system that prevailed in South Africa between 1948 and 1994) and the generic notion of apartheid that stands for an oppressive system which allocates political and social rights in a differentiated manner based on people’s origins (including but not restricted to race).  To illustrate the point, pointing to different trends in the use made of indigenous labour power in the two countries (exploitation in South Africa, exclusion in Israel/Palestine) serves to distinguish between historical apartheid and the Israeli ethnic-based class society.  They are indeed different in this respect.  But, it cannot serve to refute the claim that Israel is practicing apartheid in its generic sense of exclusion and discrimination on grounds of origins.  That claim has to be tackled in its own terms, independently of our understanding of the specific South African history.  This is especially the case as some features of apartheid in South Africa changed during the course of its own historical evolution and thus cannot serve as a benchmark in evaluating other political systems.

3.  We need to distinguish between the extent of similarity of South African laws, structures and practices to their Israeli equivalents, and consequent strategies of political change.  Even if we conclude that there is a great degree of structural similarity between the two states it would not tell us much about how we can apply political strategies used successfully in the former case to the latter case.  Neither would it tell us much about the direction in which the Israeli system of control is heading.  For that we need to undertake a concrete analysis of Israeli/Palestinian societies, their local and international allegiances, bases of support, vulnerabilities, and so on.

II.  What Is Apartheid?

The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted by the UN General Assembly in November 1973, regards apartheid as “a crime against humanity” and a violation of international law.  Apartheid means “similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa . . . 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”.  A long list of such practices ensues, including “denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person . . . by the infringement of their freedom or dignity”, and legislative and other measures “calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, the right to form recognized trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.  In addition, this includes 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 prohibition of mixed marriages among members of various racial groups, the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof”.2

This is not an exhaustive list — and not all practices must be present simultaneously to qualify as apartheid — but it is based on key elements of historical apartheid.  A point that stands out here is the notion of race: if we stick to the common definition of race (indicating biological origins, usually associated with physical appearance, primarily skin colour), we can dismiss the case of applicability to Israel immediately.  The definition clearly is not relevant to the relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.  Both groups are racially diverse and cannot be distinguished on the basis of physical appearance.

Having said that, we must consider that race — just like apartheid — is a term that can apply beyond its conceptual and geographical origins.  The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1965, applies the term racial discrimination to “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”  This does not apply, however, to “distinctions, exclusions, restrictions or preferences made by a State Party to this Convention between citizens and non-citizens”, and it does not affect “the legal provisions of States Parties concerning nationality, citizenship or naturalization”.3  These qualifications may exclude some practices common to apartheid South Africa and Israel, revolving around the boundaries of citizenship, but there are no similar loopholes in the 1973 convention on apartheid.

Putting together the two conventions, we end up with a definition of apartheid as a set of policies and practices of legal discrimination, political exclusion, and social marginalization, based on racial, national or ethnic origins.  This definition obviously draws on historical apartheid but cannot be reduced to it.  The focus of attention should be on the actual practices of the state, and the extent to which they are exclusionary or discriminatory, rather than on the degree of similarity to or difference from the historical case of apartheid South Africa.  For example, whether the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is really a ‘Bantustan’ is not an important or interesting question.  Whether it practices pseudo-independent rule that disguises the effective control by Israel is the real focus of concern.  We should be interested in the substance of the political arrangements rather than in the convenient labels we can stick on them.  How this definition, then, applies to Israel in substantive terms is a key theme to be addressed here.

III.  What Is Israel?  Perspectives from the Left

But first, what (or rather where) is Israel?  In a recent book, The Time of the Green Line, Professor Yehouda Shenhav of Tel Aviv University argues against the notion that there is still any meaningful distinction between ‘Israel itself’ (in its pre-1967 boundaries) and the occupied Palestinian territories.4  He criticizes what he terms the 1967 Green Line paradigm, for which Israel, a democratic nation-state of the Jewish people, with a minority of Palestinian citizens, is separate from the territories.  According to that paradigm, the 1967 occupation is an anomaly that introduced a large number of Palestinian non-citizens into the system.  As long as no final decision is made on the future of the territories they remain under temporary occupation.  The suspension of democracy and of political rights affecting their residents is a result of the unresolved conflict, but it does not affect the democratic nature of Israel itself.  The conflict can be resolved through the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, alongside Israel.  This arrangement has become known as the two-state solution: it will restore Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and give Palestinians their own nation-state.

What is the problem with this paradigm?  Shenhav identifies four ‘political anomalies’ that make the distinction between democratic pre-1967 Israel and the occupied territories difficult to sustain.  These anomalies reflect the interests and concerns of specific groups in the population:

  1. Palestinian refugees who trace the origin of their situation to 1948.  For those of them residing in the occupied territories, 1967 was a moment of liberation, in the sense that their ability to move within their homeland was enhanced as a result.
  1. Jewish religious-nationalist settlers, for whom the Green Line is not morally or politically meaningful, and Israel as a Jewish state extends beyond it, all the way to the Jordan River (and possibly beyond it).
  1. The people of the ‘third Israel’, who feel marginalized by the dominant political system, and for whom the occupation has provided substantial benefits.  They include settlers driven by socio-economic reasons rather than religious-nationalist motivations: primarily Mizrahim, orthodox Jews and Russian immigrants.
  1. The 1948 Palestinians, who remained within the State of Israel and became its citizens; for them 1967 represented an opportunity to reunite with their people and the Arab world from which they were forcibly separated when Israel was established.

For all these groups, pre-1967 Israel (regarded nostalgically as a democratic haven by adherents of the Green Line paradigm) was an oppressive social and political space.  A return to it would not improve their situation and might even make it worse.  Although they come from different religious, political and social backgrounds, they are united in rejecting the notion that the two-state solution would lead to a sustainable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The refugees would not benefit from the reconstitution of a Jewish Israel from which they would remain excluded; the settlers would oppose their removal from what they see as a God-given homeland; the people of the ‘third Israel’ would resent being relegated to a position of marginality from which the occupation extricated them; the 1948 Palestinians would be separated again from the Arab world and be subjected to the same exclusion and oppression from which they suffered before 1967.

And who would benefit from the two-state solution?  The answer is secular Ashkenazi-Jewish elites, who had been in political and social control before the 1967 war, but have lost their dominant position since then.  The rise of new Mizrahi, religious, immigrant and Arab voices has undermined the dominance of those elites.  A return to small, ‘enlightened’ pre-1967 Israel, in which their power was unchallenged, would allow them to re-assert their position at the expense of other groups.  That is why they are the main advocates for the Green Line paradigm.  They have managed to make it the dominant perspective in public discourse, but underlying social and cultural currents have led to its continued decline in policy and practice.  Increasing diplomatic support for the two-state solution has gone together with growing blurring of the physical, legal and symbolic boundaries between Israel and the occupied territories.  Most residents of the country have never experienced any reality other than that of Greater Israel.

Thus, the rhetorical victory of the paradigm, as expressed in almost unanimous international support for it, and its invocation in all UN resolutions, has disguised its demise in practice.  As a result of Israeli settlement activities, which created new realities, the prospect of a viable independent Palestinian state has become more remote than ever.  Through massive allocation of state resources, and a consistent policy of expansion, Israel has created a patchwork of disconnected areas in which Palestinians live, criss-crossed by settlement infrastructure.  This makes the task of removing hundreds of thousands of settlers, and restoring the integrity of the pre-1967 boundaries, virtually impossible.  Separation between Jewish settlers and local residents within the occupied territories is maintained through an elaborate system of laws and military regulations, with settlers legally and politically incorporated into Israel, while Palestinians live as stateless subjects.  The crucial distinction now is between citizens and non-citizens within the same territory, rather than between the pre- and post-1967 territories.

A similar argument, but without Shenhav’s sociological focus on marginalized Jewish groups, is provided by Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli analyst who was the first to put forward the thesis that the occupation had become irreversible (back in the mid-1980s).  Israeli hold over the territories beyond the Green Line had become permanent for most practical purposes, Benvenisti argues, even if their Palestinian residents remain excluded from citizenship and rights.  This means that defining the territories as occupied is misleading, as they have become incorporated into the Israeli system of control.  Disguising this reality, by keeping the pretence that the situation is temporary and there is a meaningful ‘peace process’ that would result in change, helps maintain the status quo.  The paradigm of temporary occupation should be replaced by that of a ‘de facto bi-national regime’, which can describe the “mutual dependence of both societies, as well as the physical, economic, symbolic and cultural ties that cannot be severed without an intolerable cost.”  The bi-national situation does not mean parity of power due to “the total dominance of the Jewish-Israeli nation, which controls a Palestinian nation that is fragmented both territorially and socially . . . only a strategy of permanent rule can explain the vast settlement enterprise and the enormous investment in housing and infrastructure, estimated at US $100 billion.”5

The system is geared to undermine every agent or process that puts the Jewish community’s total domination in jeopardy and threatens its ability to accumulate political and material advantages.  It has evolved as an unplanned response to some “genetic code” of a settler society, but it is no longer dependent on settlements and military occupation to entrench itself.  It is sustained by Israel’s success in fragmenting Palestinians and ensuring that each of the fragments is concerned only with its own affairs with no interest in or capacity to work together with the others.  As a result, a bi-national reality has emerged and partition is no longer a viable option, if it ever was.  The two national groups are destined to live together and the only question is what kind of relations between them can and will be established.

A more complex picture is presented by Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, who make a distinction between the two sides of the Green Line, in an attempt to understand how both are governed by a single internally differentiated regime.6  This regime has a dual character: brutal oppression, denial of human and political rights, total disregard for the welfare of subjects in the occupied territories, combined with (qualified) democracy in pre-1967 boundaries.  This duality exists within the boundaries of the same regime.  Talking today about Israel in its pre-1967 boundaries as a distinct social and political entity is meaningless — the regime encompasses both sides of the Green Line and they are interdependent.  The occupied territories are included in a way that retains their exclusion from the realm of legitimate politics (they fall rather under notions of ‘security’ or of ‘demography’).  The regime incorporates the occupied territories as a permanent ‘outside’, an ‘inclusive exclusion’: a space that is always subject to Israeli domination (in the Gaza Strip today just as much as in the West Bank since 1967) but is never absorbed into Israel.  Neither withdrawal from the territories nor their annexation is a likely outcome: this is not a result of failure to decide on a policy due to fierce internal debate as it is usually portrayed; rather, it is a firm policy decision to retain this ambiguity forever, if possible.

While in the occupied territories the distinction between citizen (soldier, state official, settler) and non-citizen (Palestinian resident) is paramount, within the Green Line the ethnic distinction between Jewish and Arab citizens is crucial.  In the occupied territories both distinctions overlap but not so in Israel, which is why it is important not to lump them together.  This tension between the principles of ethnicity and citizenship opens up opportunities for change.  Israeli Palestinians are discriminated against but are not subject to the same system of domination as their counterparts who live under occupation.  They can exercise their citizenship rights to campaign for meaningful political and social integration as equals.  And, in doing that, they could open the way for changing the regime itself.  Occupied Palestinians can resist the occupation but the road to changing the regime itself is blocked, because they have no effective leverage from the external position into which they are forced.  Overall regime change thus hinges on the success of changing Israel from within through the joint efforts of Israeli Palestinians and their Jewish allies.  A change there will open possibilities for further change in the nature of the regime itself.

IV.  Is Israel an Apartheid State?

Despite their different emphases and disagreements, all views above agree that it is impossible to look at Israel in isolation from the occupied territories.  In other words, Greater Israel is the effective boundary of control and meaningful unit of political analysis.  They may also agree — but do not discuss it explicitly — that Greater Palestine is an essential part of the picture even though it is beyond the 1948 and 1967 boundaries.  In fact, precisely how Palestinians from the ‘beyond’ came to occupy that position and remain there against their will is part of the system of control which is left largely unaddressed.  Perhaps uniquely in modern history, the Israeli regime was founded historically — and continues to be essentially based — on the forcible exclusion of a large part of its potential citizens.  How to conceptualize this state of affairs remains a challenge.

This apparent agreement notwithstanding, many voices critical of Israeli policies retain a focus on the occupied territories and use the apartheid label to describe and condemn Israeli control there but not elsewhere.  Famous references to the notion of apartheid in Israel/Palestine by former US President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Professor John Dugard, the special rapporteur for the UN Commission on Human Rights, are restricted to Israeli practices of occupation and do not deal with Israel ‘proper’.  This is the case also for the thorough 2009 report by the South African Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), titled “Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid”.7

That the conceptual distinction between Israel and the occupied territories is still so entrenched, despite the fact that Israel has occupied the territories for 43 years (and had existed only 19 years without them), is a testimony to the success of the Israeli strategy of externalizing them from its body politic while retaining effective control over them.  It is also a testimony to the spirit of nationalist resistance to the occupation (in the territories) and struggle for equal rights by Palestinian citizens of Israel.  It is precisely this distinction that serves as the starting point for those rejecting the suitability of the apartheid analogy.  I will examine in this section one such case of rejection, provided by the Israeli/South African journalist Benjamin Pogrund.

Armed with real though limited anti-apartheid credentials, and with a critical attitude towards Israeli policies in the occupied territories, Pogrund is perfectly positioned to present the case against the analogy between apartheid and Israel.  Unlike others who work directly in the service of Israeli propaganda, he maintains an appearance of political independence and therefore a measure of credibility when addressing the issue in the international media (he seems to be completely absent from internal Israeli debates).  He has become a key spokesperson — possibly in an unofficial capacity — against any attempt to label the Israeli regime and its practices as a form of apartheid, and to borrow concepts and strategies from the experience of the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa.  His approach replicates many of the taken-for-granted assumptions and blind spots of liberal-left Zionists, which need to be addressed in some length.

What are Pogrund’s arguments?  In dealing with Israel inside the Green Line, he acknowledges that Palestinian citizens “suffer extensive discrimination, ranging from denial of land use, diminished job opportunities and lesser social benefits”, and so on.  Yet, “discrimination occurs despite equality in law; it is extensive, it is buttressed by custom, but it is not remotely comparable with the South African panoply of discrimination enforced by parliamentary legislation.”8  Pogrund clearly is unfamiliar with the extensive research and advocacy work done by legal and human rights organizations such as Adalah — the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel — and Mossawa — the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel.  A look at their publications would show precisely such ‘panoply’ of discriminatory practices and laws, albeit frequently formulated in more subtle language than the blunt South African legislation.  It would seem that the task of a critical journalist should consist in exposing such legal practices rather than covering up for them.9

But, Pogrund argues, “Arabs have the vote.  Blacks did not.  The vote means citizenship and power to change.  Arab citizens lack full power as a minority community but they have the right and the power to unite as a group and to ally with others.”  True enough, but then — as he should be fully aware of — some blacks in South Africa did have the right to vote at certain periods of history, most recently with PW Botha’s 1983 Constitution, which established the Tricameral parliament.  This applied to minority black communities classified as coloured and Indian, not to the majority of the black African population, and they voted on a separate role rather than a common one for all citizens.  And yet, they faced similar political marginalization as minorities just as Palestinian citizens of Israel do: in both cases these groups represented about 15% of the overall indigenous population and enjoyed a relatively privileged status, though in neither case have such privileges prevented them from supporting the overall struggle for national liberation.  Of course, the analogy between the political status of such minority groups in South Africa and Israel is not perfect; no analogy ever is.  But, it does make for potentially useful exploration that is entirely absent from Pogrund’s account.10 

Beyond these issues there is a bigger concern.  Pogrund says: “Israel now has a Jewish majority and they have the right to decide how to order the society, including defining citizenship.  If the majority wish to restrict immigration and citizenship to Jews that may be incompatible with a strict definition of the universality of humankind.  But it is the right of the majority.”  Missing from this statement are a few inconvenient facts.  For example, Jews became a majority in the country only through the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and, long before the UN partition resolution of 1947, the Zionist movement created an ever-expanding zone of exclusion by removing all Palestinian-Arab residents from land acquired by official Jewish agencies and by denying them employment in all Jewish public-owned workplaces.  The crucial fact that Palestinians are not immigrants, nor are they seeking rights in someone else’s country but rather in their own homeland, is ignored as well.  In fact, the situation is the precise opposite: Jewish immigrant settlers are granted rights directly at the expense of indigenous Arabs, a state of affairs that Pogrund should be familiar with from his South African experience.

While recognizing that “it is clearly unfair from the victims’ point of view for Israel to give automatic entry to Jews from anywhere while denying the ‘Right of Return’ to Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the wars of 1948 and 1967, and their descendants”, he claims that it is not unique to Israel: “The same has happened in recent times, often on far greater scales, in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, India and Pakistan, to list but a few parallel situations.”  Again, this argument deliberately ignores the fact that no European country recognizes the right of ‘ethnic kin’ to return at the expense of its indigenous population.  That the Law of Return in Israel recognizes the rights of all Jews to citizenship (even if they and their ancestors for millennia never set foot in the territory) and denies the same right to all Palestinians who are not citizens already (even if they and their ancestors were born there) is without parallel.  No other country practices such policies, not even South Africa under apartheid.

Do India and Pakistan, then, provide any grounds for regarding the Israeli case as unexceptional?  The answer is no, for two reasons: there was forcible but symmetrical exchange of populations between the two countries, whereas Israel expelled the indigenous population in a one-sided manner.11  And, Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Muslim refugees from India accounted for 2-3% of their countries’ respective populations.  In comparison, Palestinian refugees from the territories that became Israel in 1948 accounted for 80% of the Arab population in those areas (and about 60% of the Arab population of the entire country).  The removal of the majority of the indigenous population by settler immigrants is unprecedented.  In a sense Pogrund is right in rejecting the apartheid analogy here: apartheid was about exploiting indigenous people, not expelling them from their country.  This is a key difference between the two cases, but hardly one that portrays Israel in a better light.
Turning to the occupied West Bank (ignoring Gaza), Pogrund tries to create a false picture of symmetry: “Everyone is suffering, Palestinians as victims and Israelis as perpetrators.  Death and maiming haunts everyone in the occupied territories and in Israel itself.  Occupation is brutalising and corrupting both Palestinians and Israelis.  The damage done to the fabric of both societies, moral and material, is incalculable.”  This pseudo-humanist rhetoric disguises the crucial difference between the oppressors and the oppressed: the former are perpetrators; they do not suffer, they cause suffering; they do most of the killing and maiming, the bulk of the damage and brutalization, and all the land expropriation and political oppression.  That the Palestinians are not oppressed “on racial grounds as Arabs”, but on national grounds (as Arabs), does little to offset the huge disparity in power, resources, ability to inflict damage, and impunity with which Israel pursues its settlement and occupation policies.  Neither does the fact that “The Israeli aim is the exact opposite [of historical apartheid]: it is to keep Palestinians out, having as little to do with them as possible, and letting in as few as possible to work”, rather than exploit their labour, provide much consolation.  After much of their land was taken away from them, Black South Africans under apartheid remained with the prospect of finding work with whites.  Palestinians in the occupied territories, in comparison, are deprived of land and job prospects.  Little wonder that they do not find the notion that they are free from apartheid rule very comforting. . . .

If Israel were “to annex the West Bank and control voteless Palestinians as a source of cheap labour”, Pogrund continues, “or for religious messianic reasons or strategic reasons — that could indeed be analogous to apartheid.  But it is not the intention except in the eyes of a minority — settlers and extremists who speak of ‘transfer’ to clear Palestinians out of the West Bank, or who desire a disenfranchised Palestinian population.”  He seems ignorant of the fact that for the first twenty years of the occupation that was indeed the case: voteless Palestinians were a source of cheap labour for Israelis.  For the last twenty years, Palestinians have remained disenfranchised, though they have been largely replaced by immigrant workers as a source of cheap labour.  And, for the entire duration of the occupation — 43 years so far — Israel has controlled the territories for religious messianic or strategic reasons, regardless of the professed intentions of its population.  The only difference between the scenario portrayed by Pogrund and reality itself is formal annexation.  But actual practices on the ground are much more powerful than legal formulas.  Indeed, Benvenisti’s argument that keeping the pretence that the occupation is temporary helps maintain the status quo comes in handy here.  Empty rhetoric about the need for “genuine peace efforts” cannot disguise the fact that the longer the peace process continues, the more entrenched Israeli control over the occupied territories becomes.

In summary, then, with regard to ‘Israel proper’ Pogrund misrepresents both the extent and the nature of the systemic formal and informal discrimination against Palestinian citizens.  With regard to ‘Greater Israel’, he ignores the quasi-permanent nature of the occupation and the fact that Palestinian residents have been living under a system of an effective apartheid-like control for 43 years already, as recognized by most critical South African visitors.  As for ‘Greater Palestine’, it plays no role in the analysis: to include it would shatter his entire construction.  In other words, he provides a partial and deceptive analysis.

Examining the different aspects of Israeli policies, Palestinian citizens are granted rights that were denied to the majority of black people, occupied Palestinians are treated in much the same way as black people were treated (especially residents of the ‘homelands’), and Palestinian refugees are excluded to a far greater degree than black South Africans ever were.  Considering apartheid in the generic sense, then, Israeli policies and practices meet many — not all — of the criteria identified in the international convention on apartheid, with the qualification that they are based on ethno-national rather than racial grounds.

This does not mean that the Israeli society, state, and system of control are indeed the same as those of historical apartheid, although they do bear family resemblances.  No case is like any other.  Even countries that shared much history with South Africa — Such as Zimbabwe and Namibia under colonial rule — did not have identical systems, and apartheid itself changed substantially over time.  While the technologies of rule (coercive, legal and physical) used by Israel have largely converged with their apartheid counterparts, crucial differences between the societies remain.  These involve ideological motivations, economic strategies, and political configurations.  In all these respects, Israel/Palestine shows greater tendency towards exclusion than is the case for South Africa, and to understand why we need to examine historical trajectories.12

Contemporary South Africa is the product of a long history, which saw various colonial forces (the Dutch East India Company and the British Empire, Afrikaner and English settlers, missionaries, farming and mining lords and so on) collaborate and compete over the control of various indigenous groups.  Over a long period of expansion, stretching over centuries, this pattern created a multi-layered system of domination, collaboration and resistance.  Numerous political entities (British colonies, Boer republics, African kingdoms, missionary territories) emerged as a result, accompanied by diverse social relations (slavery, indentured labour, land and labour tenancy, sharecropping and wage labour).  White supremacy was a means to ensure white prosperity, using black labour as its foundation.

By the late 19th century, a more systematic approach had begun to crystallize.  It was used to streamline the pre-existing multiplicity of conditions and policies into a uniform mode of control, which would guarantee the economic incorporation of black people while keeping them politically excluded.  Apartheid was a link in this historical chain, seeking to close existing loopholes and entrench white domination.  During the same period, the nature of resistance changed as well, from early attempts to retain independence, to a struggle for incorporation on an equal basis, based on the massive presence of indigenous people in the white-dominated economy.  The exploitation of labour gave them a crucial strategic lever for change due to their indispensable role in ensuring white prosperity.  Since the 1930s at least, black political movements aimed to transform the state rather than form independent political structures.  By the late 1970s, white elites had started to realize that apartheid was becoming counter-productive in ensuring prosperity.  It was too costly and cumbersome, and increasingly irrational from an economic point of view: it hampered the creation of an internal market and prevented a shift to a technology-oriented growth strategy.  The resistance movement that grew after the 1976 Soweto uprising, combined with international pressure and increasing stress on the state’s resources and capacity, gave the final push towards a settlement.  This took the form of a unified political framework, within which numerous social struggles continue to unfold.

The South African trajectory can be contrasted with that of Israel/Palestine, which produced two distinct ethno-national groups.  The formation of Israel in 1948 and the unfolding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have deepened the divide between the communities (though they also gave rise to Palestinian citizens as an intermediary group).  A major reason for this diversion is that settler Jews and indigenous Arabs had started to consolidate their group identities — linked to broader ethno-national collectives — before the initial encounter between them, whereas settlers and indigenous people in South Africa formed their collective identities locally in the course of the colonial encounter.  As a result, the Zionist project in Israel/Palestine has faced indigenous people as an obstacle to be removed from the land to clear the way for Jewish immigration into the country.  White settlers in South Africa, in contrast, focused on controlling resources and populations (land and labour) to enhance their wealth.  Political domination was a means to an economic goal in South Africa, whereas it has become a goal in its own right in Israel/Palestine.

On the basis of this trajectory, the founding act of the State of Israel in 1948 was inextricably linked with the nakba — the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the indigenous population living in the areas allocated to the new state.  This has had contradictory effects: on the one hand, the removal of most Palestinians and the relegation of the rest to the status of a permanently marginalized minority have allowed the state to adopt democratic norms premised on Jewish demographic dominance.  On the other hand, the same process ensured a permanent external threat from Palestinians who were dispossessed in 1948.  Neither outcome had parallels in South Africa under apartheid.  With the 1967 occupation, another component was added to the picture, which began to resemble historical apartheid: a large number of people became incorporated into the Israeli labour market but remained disenfranchised.  The state was unwilling to extend to them political and civil rights enjoyed by Palestinian citizens, and unable to impose on them another round of the 1948 ethnic cleansing.  They remain stuck in the middle, subject to a monstrous legal-military apparatus aimed to ensure their subordination, without annexation and without ethnic ‘purification’.

Is this apartheid in its generic sense, then?  In crucial respects it is indeed.  It is important to understand its similarities to and differences from historical apartheid, though, not for purposes of labelling but because they provide crucial clues for strategies of resistance and change.  Any discussion of possible alternatives will benefit from such understanding.



1  Exceptions are Ran Greenstein, Genealogies of Conflict: Class, Identity and State in Palestine/Israel and South Africa (Wesleyan University Press, 1995); Mona Younis, Liberation and Democratization: The South African and Palestinian National Movements (University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Hilla Dayan, “Regimes of Separation: Israel/Palestine and the Shadow of Apartheid”, pp 281-322 in The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, edited by Adi Ophir, Michal Givoni and Sari Hanafi (Zone Books, 2009).

2  International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, 30 November 1973.

3  International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 21 December 1965.

4  Yehouda Shenhav, The Time of the Green Line (Am Oved, 2010), in Hebrew.

5  Meron Benvenisti, “United We Stand”, Ha’aretz, 28 January 2010.

6  Ariela Azoulay and Adi Ophir, The Regime Which Is Not One: Occupation and Democracy between the Sea and the River: 1967 — (Resling, 2008), in Hebrew.  An excerpt from the book appeared in English as “The Order of Violence”, pp 99-140 in The Power of Inclusive Exclusion (Zone Books, 2009).

7  HSRC, Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?: A Re-assessment of Israel’s Practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories under International Law (HSRC Press, 2009).

8  Benjamin Pogrund, “Israel Is a Democracy in Which Arabs Vote — Not an Apartheid State”, Focus, 40 (December 2005).  Online version in <>.

9  Among many examples, see Adalah, Legal Violations of Arab Minorities in Israel (March 1998); Adalah, Annual Report of Activities, 2009 (February 2010); Mossawa Center, The Human Rights Status of the Palestinian Arab Minority, Citizens of Israel (October 2008); Mossawa Center, One Year for Israel’s New Government and the Arab Minority in Israel (April 2010).

10  See the analogy between Palestinian citizens and coloured South Africans in Oren Yiftachel, “‘Creeping Apartheid’ in Israel/Palestine”, Middle East Report, 253 (Winter 2009).

11  Since Palestinian refugees did not move into countries from which Jews left for Israel in the 1950s (Iraq, Yemen, North Africa), nor did they enjoy access to abandoned Jewish property, there was no exchange of populations there.

12  Extended discussion of these issues can be found in Greenstein, Genealogies of Conflict.

Ran Greenstein, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.  See, also, Ran Greenstein, “Israel/Palestine and the Apartheid Analogy: Critics, Apologists and Strategic lessons (Part 2).”

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