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Israel and the Palestinians

Is Israel an Apartheid State?

Author: James Konn, The University of Birmingham


B'tselem, an Israeli human rights NGO, has claimed that Israel operates an apartheid regime from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. This article disputes this claim by first creating a division between the regime in Israel and in the Occupied West Bank and then discusses the situation in both areas. The article concludes that there are significant problems of inequality especially in the Occupied West Bank, however, in neither area is there apartheid and thus it is an inappropriate term to describe the regimes. 

Full article

This article is in response to the Guardian, amongst other newspapers, reporting B’Tselem’s change of their classification of the nature of Israel. B’Tselem declared that they now believe that Israel operates an apartheid regime from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. This would cover Israel and the Occupied Territories according to the United Nations, namely: the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.  B’Tselem is “The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories”, and as an NGO it wants to end Israel’s occupation and promotes a one-state solution with Palestinians and Israelis enjoying equal rights.

Apartheid describes the system of discrimination that was employed in South Africa 1948-1991 which enforced segregation between the White and Black populations there.  This term is loaded with terrible experiences by the Black population of South Africa and comes with serious connotations and so should not be thrown around lightly.  This was a particular case of discrimination and it cannot be used to label all regimes where inequality is apparent, even if it comes from within the law.  So, can this term be applied to Israel?

B’Tselem seems to think so.  They claim that there is “one regime governing the entire area and the people in it” and thus the separation between the two regimes within and outside of the green line is “divorced from reality”.  However, there are large differences in regime between Israel and the Occupied West Bank. In Israel, all citizens have practically equal rights regardless of race and religion and they all fall under the jurisdiction of Israel entirely. In the Occupied West Bank, Jewish Settlers have the same rights as any Israeli however the Palestinians are not Israeli citizens and thus do not have the same rights (the exception being Palestinians who have accepted Israeli citizenship in Occupied East Jerusalem). Depending on which area the Palestinians live, Palestinians are either under full Palestinian civil and security control (Area A) or under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli Palestinian security control (Area B).  In addition to their limited self-rule, the Palestinians are also subject to Israeli military rule. Therefore, it is clear that there are large discrepancies between the regimes in Israel and beyond the green line and thus equating the two is not accurate.

B’Tselem states that Israeli Arabs “do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens”. This statement is untrue as Israeli Arabs have practically equal rights to Jewish Israelis and are found in all parts of society.  They can vote, with Arab parties making up 12.5% of the Knesset and they can serve on the Supreme Court with Salim Joubran serving as Supreme Court Justice from 2004-2017. 

This does not mean Israeli Arabs do not face discrimination in Israel even from Government. The Nation-State law (passed in 2018) states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”, thereby indicating that other groups in Israel do not have that right to national self-determination, discriminating against them.  The Nation-State law also mandates that “the state views Jewish settlement as a national value” again promoting Jewish settlement above the settlement of other groups, indicating that Jewish settlement alone has a special status.  Practically, the Nation-State law has been used to discriminate against Israeli Arabs since its inception. A judge dismissed a lawsuit in the city of Carmiel to set up an Arab speaking school in order to protect “the Jewish Character of the city”. This shows where the nation state law can cause segregation between people by ensuring non-Jewish infrastructure is not set up to attempt to prevent non-Jews from settling in different areas. Additionally, there are gaps in funding between Arab schools and Jewish schools in Israel which obviously affects their educational attainment and employment opportunities in later life, and this comes from levels of Government.  Furthermore, the Likud party has attempted to suppress Arab voter turnout in the past by installing cameras in polling stations in Israeli Arab towns and villages during the April 2019 election. This was not state-sponsored voter suppression but it came from the party heading the Government so it should be taken seriously, and it demonstrates discrimination from people in power. While it is clear that even in law, Israeli Jews and Arabs are not considered completely equal, there is no large segregation between the two. Israeli Arabs are legally allowed to live and work anywhere in any profession, unlike black South Africans who were confined to live in certain areas and had to receive permits (which were very rare) to work in certain professions in ‘white areas’. Therefore, the application of the word apartheid is not appropriate to Israel.

Now that it is established that Israel does not operate an apartheid regime within its borders, it must then be established that it does not operate one passed the green line. There is an obvious separation between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank with the two living separately, with the West Bank Wall/Security Fence a symbol of that separation.  Settlers have full rights under Israeli law whereas Palestinians are not Israeli citizens so do not share the same rights. However, Palestinians are still subject to Israeli military rule and can often face detainment without any formal charges being brought against them or without a trial. Israel controls construction in the Occupied West Bank and dramatically favours the construction of settlement homes over Palestinian homes and has since 1967 changed the demographic of the area, making a future Palestinian state harder to achieve and smaller in size. Israel also suppresses Palestinian freedom of movement preventing them from entering settlements and Israel without a permit and requiring them to go through lengthy checkpoints. It must also be said Israelis cannot enter Area A of the Occupied West Bank, so their movement is too restricted in that territory. It is evident that Palestinians are discriminated against under Israeli military rule, but is it apartheid?

There are certain key differences between the two cases. Black South Africans were discriminated against due to race whereas Palestinians are due to ethnicity. Black South Africans wanted to be fully integrated into South African society whereas Palestinians want to separate from Israelis to form their own state. Israeli action in the Occupied West Bank is to increase its Jewish demographic and as Israel claims, for security purposes (however debatable it is that some of its policies are intended to and actually achieve this), whereas in South Africa the apartheid was to assert white supremacy and to oppress black individuals. The Palestinians have limited self-rule under the Oslo Accords which their leadership signed in a step for statehood compared to black South Africans who had limited self-rule in Bantustans which they were forced into. In South Africa, certain facilities were only allowed to be used by white people whereas in the Occupied West Bank the separation of Palestinians and Settlers ensures the two do not mix in each other’s areas. These differences mean the term apartheid should not be used to describe the situation in the Occupied West Bank but rather a new term should be generated to reflect the specific situation that occurs there. This is especially true in terms of the solution to the conflict. In South Africa, the end of Apartheid led to equality for all citizens of South Africa, whereas in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not many promote the one-state solution as the best solution for the conflict. A different problem requires a different solution.

There is clear inequality in Israel, and this is further shown in the Occupied West Bank, but this inequality is no apartheid and the use of such a term does not do justice to those who lived under the apartheid regime of South Africa.