Is Israel’s treatment of Palestinians a form of apartheid?

Is Israel’s treatment of Palestinians a form of apartheid?

Tracy Wilkinson

January 9, 2024

The era of apartheid in South Africa is one of the world’s darkest chapters

twentieth 20th


The word itself has become shorthand for systems of oppressive rule around the world and even before the current war in Gaza unleashed a massive wave of demonstrations, it was an increasingly popular refrain among pro-Palestinian activists.

But does the term apartheid accurately describe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians?

Here’s a look at the issue, a long-running debate among human rights experts.

What is the origin of the word apartheid?

In 1948, the newly empowered National Party in South Africa established a racial hierarchy to ensure the dominance of the white descendants of the Dutch colonists. The party called the system apartheid, which in Afrikaans means ‘the state of separation’.

A litany of laws and regulations rigidly divided whites, blacks, Indians, and mixed-race “coloreds,” dictating where people could live, work, go to school, and even whether they could socialize with each other.

At the bottom of the hierarchy was the black majority, which was relegated to geographically small “townships” far away from city centers. Black South Africans were not allowed to own property, vote or attend certain schools.

The government did not hesitate to use force to brutally and sometimes fatally suppress opposition to the system, which became entrenched as much of the rest of the world turned away from formal segregation laws and colonialism.

How was the term used outside South Africa?

In 1973, the United Nations established the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.


The UN thus broadened the definition of apartheid. It was no longer just an oppressive system in one country, but now referred to inhuman acts committed with the aim of establishing and maintaining the domination of one racial group of people over another racial group of people and systematically oppressing them.

In addition, another UN treaty, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, was used to expand the word ‘race’, as contained in the original definition of apartheid, to include ethnicity, ancestry and national origin.

In 1993, the International Criminal Court reaffirmed apartheid as a crime against humanity and established the possibility that individuals could be held responsible.

The United States was among a handful of countries to do so


has not ratified the 1973 convention and other efforts to combat apartheid. U.S. officials argued that the definitions were weak, and the U.S. was generally reluctant to join international justice missions for fear that its own people would be persecuted.

How did apartheid become associated with Israel?

Israel sided with the United States in not ratifying the treaty, partly because it faced accusations that it was becoming an apartheid state.

Most of the criticism came from Palestinians and others in the Arab world, but some came from Israel’s own leaders. In 1976, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said that the then-nascent right-wing movement that pushed Jewish settlers onto what was supposedly Palestinian land was a “cancer” and an “acute danger” to Israeli democracy.

He warned that this would lead to apartheid, a specter raised in later years by his successors Ehud Barak and Ehud.


In recent years, as the Israeli government has moved further to the right, the apartheid label has gained popularity among activists, including progressive Jews.

“There can be no democracy with occupation,” Sharon Brous, a prominent Los Angeles rabbi, said last September in her Yom Kippur sermon, addressing the question of whether Israel can properly be called “an apartheid state.”

If the right-wing Israeli government succeeds in its efforts to disempower the judiciary, she said, “it will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to defend Israel against that characterization.


So is Israel an apartheid state?

After more than two years of research and difficult debate on this question, experts at Human Rights Watch have released a more than 200-page report with an answer

to that question


Citing Israeli officials who stated their determination to maintain Jewish-Israeli control over demographics, political power and land, the organization found that “the authorities have dispossessed, imprisoned, forcibly separated and subjugated Palestinians on the basis of their identity, in varying degrees of intensity. .”

It concluded that in Gaza and the West Bank, which together house five million Palestinians, “these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

That didn’t include Israel proper, where about two million Palestinians are Israeli citizens and make up about a quarter of the country’s population.

Why do rights groups make a distinction for Palestinian citizens of Israel?

In Israel, Palestinians are a huge underclass, with higher unemployment rates and lower overall living standards than Jewish Israelis. But they have served in the Israeli parliament and the Supreme Court and officially have the same legal rights as any citizen.

That is a crucial difference from apartheid, which refers to a codified system of subjugation that goes far beyond other forms of discrimination.

How does that compare to the West Bank?

The situation is very different in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Troops are deployed throughout the territory, where Palestinian officials have only nominal authority.


Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers who built and occupied villages in violation of international law are protected by the military, move around and are subject to an Israeli civil justice system.

Palestinians, by contrast, face restrictions on where they can go, lose their land to settlers and routinely fight what they describe as burdensome bureaucracy to secure the building permits that are easily granted to settlers.

There are even separate roads for Israelis traveling through the West Bank.

Moreover, a Jewish settler who breaks the law goes to a civilian court and often receives a minimal sentence, while a Palestinian is often sent to a military court without due process, international and Israeli human rights groups say.

Supporters of Israel resist the apartheid label, arguing that the system is necessary for security reasons.

“South Africa’s apartheid system was driven by unequivocal racism, segregating people in every aspect of their daily lives based on the color of their skin,” said Jonathan Harounoff, communications director of the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security in America. advocacy group.

“In the West Bank, by contrast, all restrictive policies toward Palestinians are not based on race or religion. It is purely driven by security concerns due to past acts of terror that have resulted in the loss of Israeli lives. .”

What about Gaza?

Defenders of Israel say the case against the use of the apartheid label is even easier to make in the Gaza Strip because Israel withdrew from the coastal enclave in 2005.

There were too few Jewish settlers in Gaza to justify the Israeli occupation, officials said at the time. The withdrawal, which quickly put Gaza under the control of the militant group Hamas, freed up more Israeli troops to patrol the West Bank.

Instead of occupying Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade on it. With help from Egypt, which typically blocks its only border crossing with the enclave, Israel uses its military to control land, air and sea access.

But Human Rights Watch and others argue that the blockade itself is a form of apartheid because it maintains the dominance of one ethnic group over another.

What does all this have to do with the war?

For some pro-Palestinian activists, the word provides context, if not justification, for the October resolution. Hamas’s seventh attack that started the war and killed about 1,200 Israelis. After all, black South Africans and their supporters used violence on this occasion to fight for their freedom.

However, Israel continues to maintain that the Hamas violence was so extreme, including the rape or sexual abuse of a number of women, along with the hostage-taking of more than 200 people, that it contributes nothing to the cause of Palestinian statehood.

With no clear end in sight, the war is one of the deadliest chapters in a conflict that began eighty years ago. Israel has promised to continue

to his

a retaliatory invasion of Gaza until it destroys Hamas, a campaign that Gaza health authorities say has killed more than

22,000 23,000


When the fighting is eventually subsidized, the United States wants the Palestinians to take the lead in post-war governance of Gaza, but the Israeli

Chairman Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will continue its renewed occupation of the impoverished region for the foreseeable future.

That would likely strengthen the argument of those who accuse Israel of being an apartheid state.

What are the long-term prospects for an end to the apartheid debate?

Kenneth Roth, who was executive director of Human Rights Watch from 1993 to 2022 and oversaw the production of the report on apartheid, said Israeli authorities have long insisted that ending discriminatory policies depends on peace negotiations.

But 30 years later, with no real peace process underway, “that statement lacked credibility,” Roth said.

Israel has continued to support Jewish settlements in the West Bank, building “bypass roads” open only to settlers and expanding military checkpoints that Roth and others say have all but eliminated the possibility of the West Bank could one day become an independent, contiguous Palestinian state. .

‘What remains is Swiss


cheese,” he said.

Experts say Israel will have only two ways to shake off the apartheid label: allowing the creation of a Palestinian state or granting equal rights to all Palestinians under its control.


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