“The Israeli regime enacts in all the territory it controls an apartheid regime,” proclaimed B’tselem, Israel’s largest human rights organisation, in a groundbreaking report in January 2021. Then, on April 27th, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a 213-page report titled “A Threshold Crossed” accusing Israel of crimes of apartheid.
What Makes Israel an Apartheid State
Note: the following information provided is a very brief overview of the realities of apartheid and everyone is encouraged to read the full B’tselem report here.
The term ‘apartheid’ is most often used in reference to South Africa’s former regime, but it is also a term used more widely in international law. For instance, the Rome Statute defines the crime of apartheid as “inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalised 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.” In light of the recent reports, the term is more widely being used to describe the realities of Israel’s regime not only in the Occupied Territories but across all the land they control.
Perhaps the most glaring example of Israel’s unabashed commitment to apartheid was its passing of the Jewish Nation-State Bill in 2018. One of the main points of the bill was that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in the land of Israel-Palestine is “unique to the Jewish people.” In addition, Arabic was downgraded from an official language to ‘special status’, and “Jewish settlement’ was established “as a national value.” This combination of measures was described by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “a defining moment in the history of the state.” It certainly was defining but in the eyes of those not privileged by these laws, not in the idealistic way Netanyahu presented it. Within Israel, Palestinians make up 17% of the citizenry, yet they are not afforded the same rights as their Jewish counterparts.
Land division is one of the most contentious topics when discussing both the realities on the ground and the prospects for stability; however, the most widely accepted understanding of land division in the region is based on borders that were established following the 1967 Six-Day War. The Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem became the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the rest of the ancestral Palestinian land was incorporated into Israel (notably, Israel also occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights during this same war). These borders are internationally recognised and have been the basis of ‘peace deals’ throughout the years especially when so-called solutions orient around the idea of a two-state solution. Israel has continued to limit the possibility of any Palestinian sovereignty through these failed ‘peace deals’ along with blockades, military occupation, legislated discrimination, and ethnic cleansing to name a few. In 2007, Israel implemented the ongoing land, sea, and air blockade on the Gaza Strip, giving it control over Gaza’s entire airspace and waters, as well as two of the three available border crossings.
When Hamas gained power in Gaza in 2006, Israel intensified its existing limits. Israel’s restrictions on Gaza have destroyed the Gazan economy with the UN reporting the situation as a “de-development” and the area being described as the world’s largest open-air prison. Various shortages from food to building materials have ruined any chance of economic development, and access to education, clean water (more than 95% of Gaza’s water is unsafe), and health care continues to deteriorate. Furthermore, Israel has launched four military assaults on Gaza since 2007, the latest one occurring in May 2021. In total, 248 Palestinians were killed within 11 days in the latest Gaza bombardment, including 66 children, with the Israel Defence Forces’ Twitter account exclaiming, “200+ terrorists neutralized.” Additionally, 1,900 are injured and over 52,000 are displaced. 12 Israelis were also killed by Hamas rockets.
The Question of Gaza
When the situation in Gaza is brought up, those in favour of the Israeli government’s actions often deflect blame by accusing the militant group Hamas of all the wrongs. While Israel and its staunch supporters like Canada, the US, and the EU all recognise Hamas in its entirety as a terrorist organisation, other countries have hesitated in doing so. Norway and Switzerland maintain neutrality in regards to Hamas on the basis that it is, after all, an elected entity. Respected scholar and Hamas expert Dr. Khaled Hroub has challenged the predominantly Western representation of Hamas, saying the group “has always been reduced to a mere ‘terrorist group’ whose only function is and has been to aimlessly kill Israelis.” Hroub and others have suggested that “the true nature of Hamas as a resistance group, and more recently as a political party and legislative government, is much more complex” than is often presented. This stance in no way deflects from the very real militant acts that Hamas perpetrates in its exchanges with Israel, but rather encourages a more holistic view and approach to the situation in the besieged Gaza Strip.
HRW contended that while Israel does have legitimate security concerns, its “use [of] security as a pretext to advance demographic objectives” deserves criticism. Palestinian-American lawyer Noura Erakat echoed HRW’s notion by highlighting Israeli policies as the root of the issue: “if Hamas were to disappear, Palestinians would still remain under subjugation and oppression” by the Israeli occupation. Basma Ghalayini, a writer from Gaza, emphasised this by expressing the opinion that “to focus on Hamas is to miss the point and to reinforce the myth that the conflict is, in some fundamental manner about [Hamas]. The conflict is about the Israeli occupation.”
Israel’s Settlement Policy
Although the Occupied West Bank is not officially annexed by Israel, it is still treated as such. Most notably, Israel has established more than 280 illegal settlements and outposts there, offering financial incentives to families and individuals who move to these settlements, including tax deductions. Israel’s geographical planning of settlements, outposts, and factories in the Occupied West Bank is meticulously organized in an effort to extend its geographical footprint – and it is working. For example, the population of Erfat, an Israeli settlement to the west of Bethlehem, is expected to at minimum double in the coming decades.
The impact of these settlements goes beyond numbers as the placing of settlement blocs has rendered some Palestinians unable to access their agricultural land, “whether directly (in areas declared state land or closed by military order) or as a result of the chilling effect of state-backed settler violence.” According to B’tselem, the Occupied West Bank “is used to develop and expand existing Jewish settlements and build new ones,” stripping Palestinians from their property, rights, and protections. The expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territory limits Palestinians “of any ability to influence their own future” and compels them “to live in disconnected, dwindling, economically suppressed enclaves.”
What’s more, Israelis are subject to civil law within the same land, while Palestinians, including children, are subject to military law. In another show of clear differential treatment in the same land, based purely on who you are, Israeli settlers living in the Occupied West Bank are permitted to vote in Israeli elections while Palestinians are barred from participating. This last example shows two very different, but similarly tragic, realities: Israel, while occupying Palestinian land, treats it as both its own territory by encouraging its citizens to move there in blatant disregard of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and Jewish Israeli citizens are treated just the same as if they lived in Israel proper. Hence, Israeli settlers are protected by one of the world’s most powerful armies and are also able to vote for a government and its policies which only harm Palestinians – while their Palestinian neighbours cannot vote and are denied many basic human rights.
On the topic of citizenship, the Jewish diaspora is fully entitled to Israeli citizenship and a fully-funded move to the nation-state. Comparatively, Palestinians are not granted the right to return to their homes and land, including families who were exiled in 1948, 1967, or any interim year. The difference in citizenship rights ties into the Israeli government’s significant attempt to diminish the visibility of Palestinians in the land. If there is a couple in which one is a resident of Gaza and the other is a resident of the Occupied West Bank, Israel will demand both of them to move to Gaza. If a Palestinian marries an Israeli, the Palestinian is not entitled to Israeli citizenship or permanent residency status, unlike spouses from other nationalities.
The reports compiled all this information and more in an attempt to show the realities of the occupation of Palestine. What is most important about these reports, in relation to international law, is that they break from the mainstream criticism of Israel’s policies, which are repeatedly limited to the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). Instead, these reports put the entirety of Israel’s policies into question, challenge the Israeli government’s self-imposed label as the “only democracy in the Middle East,” and investigate “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea” as B’tselem framed it.
A Palestinian Perspective
I spoke with a Palestinian activist, who shall remain nameless for security purposes, about the report and his reactions to it.
“I didn’t feel the frustration that many felt, though I understand it,” he explained, referring to the frustration felt by many Palestinians that their testimonies haven’t been enough and that their truth is only recognised as credible when compiled in a report, for example. “I see it as the tide turning on the apartheid state, no longer will people be silent or scared into silence. I’m looking forward to what’s coming; it’s a snowball effect and eventually it will lead to a more stable future.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry called the HRW report a “propaganda pamphlet,” saying it has “no connection to facts or reality on the ground. The fictional claims that HRW concocted are both preposterous and false.” I asked the activist, how do you respond to people who tell you it’s not true that Israel is an apartheid state?
“I usually don’t waste energy,” he said. “If I choose to engage … [I tell them] look up the definition, the Jewish Nation-State Bill and controlling supremacy.” What is most shocking is perhaps not cold-hard facts, but that Israeli leaders still deny them. He explained, “I tell my own experience. How illegal settlers can go everywhere but I, a Palestinian, can’t go to Jerusalem or my father’s town and I can only use certain roads [in the Occupied West Bank]. I have experienced the apartheid system.”
“Settlers can go all over the land but I cannot; they frequently come to my mother’s village protected by the army to kill the cattle of Palestinian farmers, burn olive trees and expand their settlements. Throughout the night, there are always blue lights flashing which belong to the army tanks stationed to protect these settlers.” The example of his mother’s village shows the reality long-lived by Palestinians under Israel’s apartheid regime, finally being widely recognised, in part through the reports. “My mother’s stories … forever [it has] been apartheid […] It’s not anything new: checkpoints, ID systems, everything the reports talk about is not new, it has been here for decades and decades.”
Hope for the Future
He contended that Canadian sanctions on Israel are doable, as shown by federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh calling for an end to arms sales to Israel in Parliament. Yet, change in lower socio-political levels is both possible and impactful too. He encouraged Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as the first step: “Universities need to end all ties with Israeli universities, divest from companies directly contributing to the occupation, the government needs to sanction Israel, [and] the media needs to report honestly about what’s happening in Palestine.” He emphasised that “BDS should act as a main form of resistance and pressure” – it worked in South Africa, so who is to say it won’t work in Israel/Palestine?
“What we are asking for, the demands of BDS are very basic,” he said. “I want to be able to return home, live freely and equitably and have equal rights between everyone in the land. This can only happen when the occupation ends.”
The occupation of Palestine, and the fight for its liberation, is vital to understand and support. Though many debate about semantics and argue about who started which war, the simple truth is that there is an occupier and the occupied, an oppressor and the oppressed – and this notion is not hard to wrap one’s head around. More and more, we are seeing people speak up about Palestine after decades of Palestinians screaming to be heard. Power also lies in global solidarity between Palestine, the fight of Indigenous people against settler-colonialism on Turtle Island, the Black liberation struggle in America, and an end to the military occupation of Kashmir. The collective understanding that Palestine is also a feminist struggle and environmental struggle.
As Sumaya Awad and Brian Bean wrote in Palestine: A Socialist Introduction, “We look toward regional uprisings and global movements as the hope for the international working class to win freedom for Palestine – and indeed, freedom for us all, from the river to the sea and across the entire world.”
Pressure your MP to take action against apartheid (Canada): Letter to MPs on Palestine
Introduce sanctions against Israel (UK): https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/585314
BDS List: https://bdsmovement.net/
Pressure yourself, your family, your friends, your university, your student unions, your politicians, your workplace, etc. to implement BDS!
There is most likely a pro-Palestine group at your university, in your town or even at a national level – join them!
Palestine: A Socialist Introduction (free ebook link): https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1558-palestine-a-socialist-introduction
Justice for Some by Noura Erakat: https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=26507