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Israel/Palestine and the apartheid analogy: critics, apologists and strategic lessons (part 1)
By: Ran Greenstein
21 August 2010
University of the Witwatersrand,
Johannesburg, South Africa

1. 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

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

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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

2. 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).

3. 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.

4. 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
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 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
were. 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 Azoulai 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 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.

4. 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, that 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 is 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 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
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).



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

5. Meron Benvenisti, “United We Stand”, Ha’aretz, 28/01/2010:

6. Ariela Azoulai 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,

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
(March 1998):;
Adalah, Annual Report of Activities, 2009 (February 2010):
09_FINAL%20PDF.pdf ; Mossawa Center, The Human Rights Status of the
Palestinian Arab Minority, Citizens of Israel
(October 2008):
08%20update%20Nov%202008.pdf ; 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
, 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

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

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