All Of It
VII. THIS IS APARTHEID
B’Tselem’s executive director, Chagai Elad: “One cannot live a single day in Israel-Palestine without the sense that this place is constantly being engineered to privilege one people, the Jewish people only. Yet half of those living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are Palestinian. The chasm between these lived realities fills the air, bleeds everywhere on this land.”
Jewish Israelis not only know this, they take it for granted, literally as god-given. In a 2017 University of Haifa poll, 79% of Israeli Jews said they should be given preferential treatment over non-Jews, a view that holds across the board, Orthodox at 98%, settlers 85%, even secular Israelis 69%. And according to Adalah, the Center for Arab Minority Rights, Israel has put in place more than 65 laws that overtly discriminate in favor of Jews and against Arabs.
In the words of MK Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, “Israel calls itself a Jewish and democratic state. . . . In reality, it is a democratic state for Jews and a Jewish state for Arabs.”
But even this reality wasn’t good enough for Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. In July 2018, beleaguered by bribery charges, massive street protests and the imminent unraveling of his Knesset coalition with elections not far off, he needed to shore up his right-wing base, and so pushed through the Knesset the Jewish Nation-State Law, the thirteenth of the Basic Laws of Israel, the equivalent of its constitution.
It states that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.” Yariv Levin, a member of Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party and Speaker of the Knesset in 2020, summed it up: “[It is] Zionism’s flagship bill . . . it will bring order, clarify what is taken for granted, and put Israel back on the right path. A country that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” One could call it the Make Israel Great Again law.
Two salient provisions. First, it made Jewish settlement a national value to be promoted and supported by the state, in short, a constitutional sanctioning of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and of Jewish-only communities and discriminatory land allocation practices inside Israel itself.
Second, it made Hebrew the only official language of Israel, downgrading Arabic to “special status.” Members of Netanyahu’s Likud and other right wing parties now go ballistic when Arab lawmakers occasionally speak Arabic on the floor of the Knesset.
In short, the Nation-State Law codified the existing reality of two-tiered citizenship that has prevailed in Palestine since the day Israel was born, and it will make legal challenges to discrimination of all kinds much more difficult.
Avraham Burg, scion of one of the aristocratic families of the religious-Zionist movement, Speaker of the 15th Knesset (1999-2003), and chair of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization (1995-1999), was appalled, “If you were to take the law as it stands and change the words, and enact it in a place where there’s a Jewish minority, you would term it antisemitic and declare all-out war against it.”
He has filed a petition to delete his Jewish nationality designation in the Israeli Interior Ministry population registry, because it implies “belonging to the group of masters. . . . I can no longer feel identification with this collective. . . . What is abhorrent to us, we are now doing to our non-Jewish citizens. . . . Erase me.”
There are a handful of theocratic countries in the world, none of them democracies, that predicate the constitutional identity of the state on religion, including Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Mauritania, these are the countries whose company Israel now keeps.
But Netanyahu’s notion that the Nation-State Law would solidify Jewish national identity blew up in his face, exposing a deeply fractured society, barely passing 62 – 55 with one absentee and two abstentions, 41 Jewish lawmakers joined 14 Arabs in voting against it.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians, Druze and Jewish Israelis poured out into the streets to protest.
Calling it the “death of our democracy,” Ayman Odeh, who chairs the Joint List of Arab parties, said “it is meant to to stick a finger in the eyes of a fifth of Israel’s population, spark a dispute and polarize in order to make a political gain for the Netanyahu tyranny, . . . [a regime that] has lost all shame, fears its own shadow and the majority tramples the minority, . . . a law of Jewish supremacy that tells us we will always be second-class citizens.”
Druze, adherents of a Abrahamic monotheistic faith neither Muslim nor Jewish, centered in Lebanon and Syria, make up less than 2% of Israel’s population, but are disproportionately represented in the Knesset with five of the 120 members, and in the armed forces, 83% of Druze men are serving or have. They are very nationalistic.
But when the Nation – State law passed, MK Shakeeb Shnaan, a former Druze lawmaker, denounced it, “Israel is my country and my home, . . . and I will continue to serve it with love, . . . but this is a mark of Cain on the forehead of everyone who voted for it.” Samir al-Asa’d, a 51-year-old retired IDF lieutenant colonel who served 22 years, said, “I am proud to be an Israeli, but this law humiliated me.”
Yael German, from the centrist opposition party Yesh Atid, called it “a poison pill for democracy.” Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform Movement warned, “The real score we need to settle is with those elected [members of Knesset] who know deep inside how much the nation-state bill is going to tarnish the Israeli law book, but remain silent.” Even Orthodox Jews protested.
Moments after the vote, Arab lawmakers ripped up copies of the bill, shouting “Apartheid!” In Hebrew, “Hafrada!”
Is Israel an apartheid state? There is a growing consensus that it is exactly that.
Human Rights Watch says it is. In its April 27, 2021 report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” the New York-based NGO concluded: “Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power and land has long guided government policy. . . .”
“In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity, . . . deprivations so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity, apartheid and persecution.”
Strong words. Eric Goldstein, who edited the report, does not use them carelessly. “Twenty years ago we would not have called it apartheid. Back then, the Oslo peace process was in full swing and many people anticipated the establishment of two states, one for Palestinians, one for Israelis. And so whatever abuses were occurring in the occupied territories, . . . it looked temporary.”
“But after 54 years of military occupation, it is far from temporary. The problem is most glaring in the West Bank, where everyone lives under the same Israeli authority, but Jewish Israelis have full political and legal rights, while Palestinians do not.”
For Goldstein, this is one version of apartheid, but apartheid nonetheless. “We’re not using the word apartheid like a flamethrower, or as an insult. It is meant to refer to a particularly severe type of systemicized discrimination.” Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence concurs, ”There comes a time to say that a line has been crossed, even if the breach occurred long ago.”
B’Tselem had already come to the same conclusion. The headline of its January 12, 2021 report declared unequivocally: “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”
“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. The common perception is that two separate regimes operate side by side in this area, divided by the Green Line. One regime, inside the borders of the sovereign State of Israel, . . . the other in the territories [West Bank and East Jerusalem] that Israel took over in 1967. But over time, the distinction between the two regimes has grown divorced from reality.”
“This state of affairs has existed for more than 50 years – twice as long as the State of Israel existed without it. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers now reside in permanent settlements east of the Green Line, living as though they were west of it. East Jerusalem has been officially annexed to Israel’s sovereign territory, and the West Bank has been annexed in practice.”
“Palestinians who live on land defined in 1948 as Israeli sovereign territory . . . are Israeli citizens, . . . [but] do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens by law or practice. . . . [The] roughly 350,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, . . . are permanent residents, a status that allows them to live and work in Israel . . . [but they cannot vote] in national elections. . . . and their residency . . . may be revoked at any time at the complete discretion of the Minister of the Interior.”
“Although Israel never formally annexed the West Bank, it treats the territory as its own, [and] more than 2.6 million Palestinians live [there] in dozens of disconnected enclaves, under rigid military rule and without political rights. . . . In 2007 Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza that is still in place today . . . [and] it continues to control nearly every aspect of life in Gaza.” This is apartheid.
B’Tselem’s Chagai Elad points out the obvious, “It is a commonly accepted falsehood that Israel is a ‘Jewish and democratic state.’ In fact, it is neither. It is a binational, inherently undemocratic, apartheid regime. The fragmentation of Palestinians may serve to obfuscate the truth, but how can a reality of demographic parity — some 7 million Jews, some 7 million Palestinians — be considered only Jewish? And when most Palestinians are disenfranchised, how can it be considered ‘democratic’?”
Israeli leaders have seen this coming for a long time. Ben Gurion himself told Israeli journalist Hirsch Goodman after the 1967 Six-Day War, “Israel better rid itself of the territories and their Arab population as soon as possible. If it does not, Israel will soon become an apartheid state.”
In a 2009 op-ed for Ha’aretz, former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair wrote unequivocally, “We have established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories.”
Speaking at a 2010 security conference in Herzilya just north of Tel Aviv, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who met with Yassar Arafat at the 2000 Camp David summit brokered by Bill Clinton, warned, “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, we will be an apartheid state.”
Yossi Sarid, the former environment minister known as “Israel’s moral compass,” put it most pithily, “What acts like apartheid, runs like apartheid and harasses like apartheid is not a duck – it is apartheid”
Which may explain why Israel was one of the last Western nations to sever ties with South Africa when global sanctions were imposed against it in the late ’80s. Israeli leaders could see what might be coming their way, those who live in glass houses . . . .
In Afrikaans, the language of white South Africans, the literal meaning of apartheid is “separateness,” in the abstract an arguably neutral term, but in practice a brutally enforced segregation and subjugation of blacks by whites. Or of Palestinians by Jews. Those who have lived under apartheid know it when they see it.
After visiting the Holy Land in 2002, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, said that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “reminded me so much of what happened to us Black people in South Africa.” Several years later he would say, “This is apartheid, like ours, only worse.”
The current president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, in the 1980’s an anti-apartheid activist and ally of Nelson Mandela, has said that the plight of the Palestinians leaves him with a “horrible sense of déjà vu, . . . seeing people being prevented from moving around, their homes destroyed, brings back very terrible memories of our own history under apartheid.” Mandela himself declared more than once, “South Africa will never be free until Palestine is free.”
Muhammed Desai, an Africa 4 Palestine activist who took a gap year in Israel in 2004, says his everyday experiences there were “a stark reminder of South Africa’s apartheid regime and of Israel’s own complicity with apartheid South Africa.”
Many Israelis and their U.S. supporters become indignant when they hear Israel and apartheid in the same breath. Hirsch Goodman, who grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Israel as a teenager in 1965, once protested, “The word apartheid, having grown up with it – no free press, no free thought, arrest without trial, like Stasi police, two million whites subjugating 20 million Blacks, moving populations from rich farmland to bantustans – a system so horrible. . . . I can’t even begin to see the comparison.”
Goodman has since had a scales-from-the-eyes epiphany, but if at the time he was referring only to Israel inside its pre-1967 borders, the apartheid label in the South African sense may not have been quite right.
Rather, being a Palestinian citizen of Israel is perhaps more like being black in America during the Jim Crow 50’s and 60’s, ghettoized housing, segregated and resource-deprived schools, blatant employment discrimination and the all-pervasive sense that Arabs are second class citizens.
In the words of Ghassan Munayyer, a Lod-based activist, “The Jews love saying coexistence, they go out to eat in an Arab restaurant and call it coexistence. But they don’t see Arabs as equal human beings. . . . Their message is . . . this country does not belong to you, this is not your land, no matter how long you or your ancestors have lived here, your culture, language and history are at best tolerated. The Israeli idea of coexistence is a majority and a minority, the strong and the weak.”
Certainly in the West Bank, and in many ways East Jerusalem too, the apartheid shoe fits perfectly.
Palestinians confined to small poverty-stricken ghettos like South African bantustans? Check. All-pervasive segregation? Check. Pass laws? Check. Lack of access to water and basic services? Check. Separation of families. Check. No voting rights? Check. Military occupation? Check. Administrative detention without trial? Check. Police brutality and torture? Check.
As for Gaza, Israel’s quarantine and blockade has turned it into the largest open air prison in the world.
Israeli politicians and their U.S. supporters tie themselves in semantic knots trying to distinguish Israel proper from its occupation of the West Bank and quarantine of Gaza, but objective observers are not fooled. Middle East scholars responding to a 2021 Washington Post poll said that Israel’s dominion of all of Palestine is “a one-state reality akin to apartheid.”
South African law professor John Dugard, appointed in 2001 as Special Rapporteur to the U.N. Human Rights Council on the Palestinian territories, went further.
Taking into account Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes and schools, and the expulsion and forcible relocation of Palestinians to make way for Jewish settlements, Dugard concluded,“Israeli practices are . . . in some ways worse than apartheid as it existed in South Africa.”
In an August 2009 op-ed for the Huffington Post, Dugard warned that “Israel is long overdue to undergo the same racial reckoning and transformation that the United States underwent in the 1960’s and South Africa passed through in the 1990’s.”
Later, in a 2012 paper, Dugard noted, “Israel does not recognize those who engage in resistance activities, whether as combatants or protesters, as ‘political’ prisoners, as this would confer legitimacy on the cause that motivates them. Instead they are termed ordinary criminals, security prisoners or, most frequently, ‘terrorists’.”
South Africa too sought to denigrate its political prisoners in this way,” but, he emphasized, “More Palestinians have been killed in targeted assassinations [by Israel] than were judicially executed in South Africa.”
Case in point. Fadi Washaha, a political science student at Bir Zeit Univeristy near Ramallah, spent eight years in Israeli prisons while still an undergraduate. Not unusual. In 2021, more than 300 Palestinian college students, 38 from BZU, were being held in Israeli prisons.
In November 2019, Fadi was struck in the face by a rubber bullet during an anti-Occupation demonstration, but recovered and went back to school.
In early 2021, a Shin Bet agent known as “Abu Noor” telephoned Fadi and ordered him to turn himself in for “questioning.” Fadi responded, “Look, Abu Noor, Why don’t you just lay off me. Get me out of your head and let me finish my studies. I suffered enough from the torture in custody, and I know that if I come to you I will be arrested again. Let me finish my studies and then I will turn myself in to the Palestinian Authority.”
But Abu Noor was insistent: “I have to finish up with your file. If you don’t come in, your case will no longer be handled by me, and you understand what that means.”
On May 15, 2021, while participating in a Nakba Day demonstration near Ramallah, Fadi was shot in the head by an IDF sniper 100 meters away. He was brain dead before he hit the ground and died two weeks later. Case closed.
Richard Falk, Princeton emeritus professor of law, succeeded Dugard as Special Rapporteur in 2009. In his 2014 report, Falk, who is Jewish, did not mince words: “Israel is guilty of race discrimination, apartheid and systematic oppression.” And, he could have added, state terrorism.
American Jews, who make up almost 40% of Jews world-wide, increasingly say so too. In a 2021 survey by the non-partisan Jewish Electorate Institute [JEI], which tracks antisemitism in the U.S., 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state,” 22% that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians,” and 34% that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States.”
According to JEI, the negative numbers are even higher among young American Jews. Of those under 35, one-third believe that “Israel is guilty of genocide against Palestinians,” more than a third that “Israel is an apartheid state,” and 20% even said that “Israel does not have the right to exist.”
Defenders, apologists, of Israel claim that the apartheid label is nothing more than an antisemitic smear to delegitimize Israel. Ilan Pappe, the Israeli historian, calls that the “big bluff,” because “it is not antisemitism that delegitimizes Israel, but the reality of the occupation.”
As B’Tselem concluded, “The entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians. This is apatheid.”
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