If this isn’t apartheid, then what is it?

We do not need to find identical practices to those prevailing in pre-1994 South Africa in order to determine whether apartheid exists elsewhere.

By Ran Greenstein

If this isn't apartheid, then what is it?
A partly constructed portion of Israel’s separation wall, in Walaja, December 7, 2010 (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

For a few years now, opinion pieces and articles in the South African and Israeli press have shown confusion regarding the meaning of the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa. How can we sort out the conceptual mess that afflicts the debates around the issue?

First, let us examine the meaning of apartheid. The term defines the race-based regime of political domination and social marginalisation that ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Alongside this meaning, another definition emerged in international law, drawing on the South African example but gradually moving away from it. With the demise of the apartheid regime in 1994, its legal meaning took a decisive step away from South African realities. The 2002 Statute of the International Criminal Court contains no references to South Africa and regards apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.” We must also bear in mind that the 1965 International Convention on eliminating racial discrimination extends the term to cover “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin.” In other words, it is not restricted to ‘race’ in the common meaning that invokes real or imaginary biological differences in its definition.

While apartheid remains associated in our minds with its South African origins, legally it has no necessary relation to South Africa. We do not need to find identical practices to those prevailing in pre-1994 South Africa in order to determine whether apartheid exists elsewhere. The key question is the identification of a regime that practices systematic oppression and domination by one group over another. How then does it apply to Israel?

To answer that, we need to clarify another concept: Israel. While usually seen as residing within its pre-1967 boundaries, the Israeli regime exercises control over Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. For the last 46 years, all residents within Greater Israel have lived under the same regime, which claims to be the sole legitimate political and military authority. The state controls the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, ruling over 8 million rights-bearing citizens (75 percent of whom are Jews) and 4 million Palestinian subjects denied civil and political rights. To complete the picture, millions of Palestinian refugees (who were born in the territory or their direct ancestors were) cannot set foot in their homeland, let alone determine its political future as citizens.

How is the notion of apartheid relevant to this reality?

The Israeli regime is based on an ethnic/religious distinction between Jewish insiders and Palestinian outsiders. It expands citizenship beyond its territory, potentially to all Jews regardless of their links to the country, and contracts citizenship within it: Palestinians in the occupied territories and refugees outside have no citizenship and cannot become Israeli citizens.

The regime combines different modes of rule: civilian authority with democratic institutions within the Green Line (pre-67 boundaries), and military authority beyond it. In times of crisis, the military mode of rule spills over the Line to apply to Palestinian citizens in Israel. At all times, the civilian mode of rule spills over the Line to apply to Jewish settlers. The distinction between the two sides of the Line is constantly eroding as a result, and norms and practices developed under the occupation filter back into Israel. Israel as a ‘Jewish democratic state’ is ‘democratic’ for Jews and ‘Jewish’ for Arabs.

It is in fact a ‘Jewish demographic state.’ Demography – the fear that Jews may become a minority – is the prime concern behind state policies. All state institutions and practices are geared to meet the concern for a permanent Jewish majority exercising absolute political domination.

These conditions are particularly visible in the occupied territories: Jewish settlers live in exclusive communities, from which all Palestinian locals are barred (except, occasionally, as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’). They drive on Israeli-only roads, enjoy Israeli military protection and access to all the privileges and and services that come with citizenship rights, including voting for the Israeli parliament. Palestinian subjects are denied access to any of the above, and have no say in the way they are governed. ‘No taxation without representation’ is a noble political principle that does not apply to them, only to Israeli settlers.

How should we call a regime that leaves millions of its subjects with no political rights, that practices segregation in all walks of life and that denies them the basic right to determine their future? True, there is a Palestinian Authority as well, but it has no power over crucial issues of security, land, water, movement of people and goods, industry and trade. All that matters is controlled by Israeli military authorities, which operate on behalf and at the behest of settlers and Israeli interest groups. That the territories have not been formally annexed to Israel is irrelevant – it changes none of the oppressive practices to which Palestinians are daily subjected.

Some people prefer not to term this regime apartheid because it is indeed different (not better) in some respects from what existed in South Africa before 1994. Fair enough, but what better term is there?

Ran Greenstein is an Israeli-born associate professor in the sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Echoes of South Africa’s ‘District Six’ in the Negev
Tzipi Livni joins the ‘Israel apartheid’ club
When ‘apartheid’ seems to be the hardest word