“If you changed the names, the description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would be a description of what is happening in South Africa.” – South African Archbishop Tutu, 1989 speech in a New York synagogue
“Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” —Former South African President Hendrick Verwoerd, Rand Daily Mail, November 23, 1961
Why “Apartheid” Applies to Israeli Policies. What is “apartheid”? Why do Nobel peace laureates like South African President Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and President Jimmy Carter use that word to describe Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians?
In 1973, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International. Convention on the Suppression and
Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, defining it as a crime against humanity, not specific to South Africa. The crime of apartheid is defined by “inhuman acts” designed to impose racial segregation and discrimination on a targeted group, The acts specified include denying life and liberty; inflicting physical or mental harm; torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment; illegal arrest and imprisonment; denying participation in political, social, economic and cultural life of the country; denying basic human rights of education, nationality; freedom of movement and residence; freedom of speech and assembly; rights to work, form trade unions, to leave and return to their country.
The Convention also prohibits acts “designed to divide the population…by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of
a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages…the expropriation of landed property,” and finally, measures that deprive people and organizations of their “fundamental rights and freedoms because they oppose apartheid.” Some argue that because the term “apartheid” is so fraught with history and so compelling in evoking injustice, it should not be used against Israel, because Jews were themselves victims
of the great historical injustice of the Holocaust. But criticism of Israel is not the same as criticism of Jews. Israel may define itself as a “Jewish state” or the “state of all the Jews in the world,” but Israel is in fact a powerful, modern nation-state, which must be held accountable like any other countryboth for its accomplishments and for its violations of international law.
Many Jews, in Israel, in South Africa, in the U.S., and elsewhere around the world, reject the claim that Israel speaks for
them. They believe that precisely because the term “apartheid” so powerfully describes the effect of Israeli policies on
Palestinians it should become the term of choice to describe the Israeli system that results in occupation of Palestinian land and denial of Palestinians’ equal rights. Certainly there are historical and political differences between the practices of South African apartheid, and the system of discrimination against Palestinians that Israel practices. One of the most important parallels, though, is the fact that South African apartheid and Israeli apartheid fundamentally concern the control of land. South African legislation such as the Group Areas Act reserved 87 percent of the land for the minority white population and confined Black workers to urban townships, labor camps or distant “Bantustans”. Their movement was controlled through a pass system, similar to that used to monitor the movement of Palestinians.
Former President Jimmy Carter defines apartheid as the “forced separation of two peoples in the same territory with one of the groups dominating or controlling the other.” This accurately describes the situation in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, where Israeli settlers and soldiers totally dominate the indigenous Palestinian population. The policies Israel has implemented to carry out its 40-year-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and expropriate Palestinian land closely mirror the “inhuman acts” that make up the UN Convention on the “Crime of Apartheid.”
For 40 years, Israel has built settlements, available only for Jewish Israelis, and now the West Bank’s Apartheid Wall, all on huge swathes of stolen Palestinian land. There is a dual legal system in the territories. Palestinians who live in the West Bank are controlled by Israeli military law; the 220,000 Israeli settlers there are governed by Israeli civil laws. In occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinians are only considered “residents” who can vote in municipal, but not national elections; the 200,000 Israeli settlers in occupied East Jerusalem, like the West Bank settlers, are citizens of Israel, with the right to vote, run for office, and seek redress in Israeli courts. Israeli military authorities control virtually all the land and water of the West Bank, and keep the entire Gaza Strip in a permanent state of siege.
Palestinians under occupation meanwhile live completely separate lives from the Israeli settlers in the same territories:
• They face constant threat of arrest, interrogation, and incarceration, often for “administrative detention” without trial or conviction, under conditions of military justice; Israeli settlers face no such threat.
• Palestinian towns, cities and villages face the imposition of collective punishment (explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions) in the form of extended curfews, closures, military raids and more, either following an alleged act of violence or for no reason at all; Israeli settlers face no such collective punishment.
• Palestinian land ownership and use for agriculture, residence or any other purpose is at all times subject to confiscation for military and economic purposes, often to expand existing or establish new Jews-only settlements, and to seize control of the most important water sources.
• Palestinians are subject to house demolitions and destruction of agriculture land including the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of centuries-old olive trees; Israeli settlers are safe from such punishments.
• Palestinians are prohibited from using the network of settler-only by-pass roads which separate Palestinian towns and villages from each other and on which only settlers and soldiers are allowed to drive; vehicles belonging to Palestinians are distinguished from Israeli-owned cars by differently-colored license tags.
• Palestinians are subject to a network of 750 or so permanent and “flying” military checkpoints at which they often wait for hours and must show their identity cards or passes; settlers and other Israelis are allowed immediate passage through the checkpoints.
The impact of Israel’s settlement activity and the route of the Wall have drawn a vivid analogy with the apartheid across the landscape of the West Bank and the imprisoned Gaza Strip. Palestinian territory has been fragmented into truncated Bantustans resembling in miniature those “homelands” for Black South Africans created by apartheid rulers to deal with what they regarded as their “demographic problem.”
In the words of the South African Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils, “With the illegal Jewish settlements, security road network, and construction of the monstrous wall around the militarily occupied West Bank, the remaining Palestinians are ghettoized within 12 percent of their original territory. This dispossession is reminiscent of Apartheid and its 13 percent of Bantustan homelands…May Israelis wake up and see reason, as happened in South Africa, and negotiate peace.”