On the Israel-apartheid analogy, yet again

The apartheid debate is no longer restricted to referencing specific South African practices. Instead, international law is increasingly becoming the guiding framework.

By Ran Greenstein

Thomas Mitchell raises an important methodological point in his article “Call it colonialism, call it occupation – just don’t call it ‘apartheid,’” which I address here. Unfortunately, in making this point he takes us through a confusing journey that obscures the issues at stake instead of clarifying them.

Take for example his notion that Fascism was a term used to refer to a specific regime in Italy from 1922 to 1945, and similar European regimes in the same period, but then it became a general term of abuse with no specific meaning. Is this really the case? No. Fascism is indeed used by the Left, not as a general term of abuse, but to refer specifically to regimes that suppress the labour movement, restrict democratic freedoms, apply authoritarian methods of political control, advocate virulent nationalism, and elevate the notion of ‘state security’ to an article of faith. We could use greater specificity here, perhaps, but this definition is far from being mere general abuse.

Or, take his notion that the Israel-South Africa alliance from the 1970s onwards was merely a “counter-alliance,” a response to being attacked by Arab and African states, part of the Non-Aligned Movement. What Mitchell neglects to tell the readers is that the multi-billion-dollar web of relations – covering everything from diamonds and riot-control equipment to nuclear weapons, making military industries and their ‘securocrats’ in both countries very rich – was a ‘response’ to a few declarations of solidarity in conferences, perhaps a dozen altogether in as many years.

But let us get back to the substance of the article. Mitchell says: “Greenstein quotes the official UN definition of apartheid: ‘any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin.’ Does he really believe that there were no instances of such in black Africa or in the Middle East, two regions infamous for ethnic power in multi-ethnic states?” The answer is simple. He is quoting the UN definition of racial discrimination, taken from the 1966 UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, rather than the definition of “the crime of Apartheid” in the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, on which I relied in my article. Many states indeed have committed general acts of racial discrimination, but very few have committed the specific acts associated with the crime of apartheid, which is the focus of our concern. How do we define that specific notion?

The Rome Statute refers to acts such as “deportation or forcible transfer of population,” and “imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law,” and “persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious … or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law.” These acts constitute crimes in general, but become associated with the specific crime of apartheid when they are committed “in the context of an institutionalized 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” (emphasis added).

What this means is that we do not look here at all cases of abuse and discrimination (which deserve condemnation indeed), but only at those that are committed in the context of a specific regime. The regime must be ‘institutionalized,’ that is organized as a network of inter-related laws, structures and practices; its domination must be ‘systematic,’ that is not random acts here and there, but acts carried out over a long duration with an overall goal.

Israeli Border police officers corral Palestinians as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem, July 26, 2013. (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Israeli Border police officers corral Palestinians as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem, July 26, 2013. (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

This definition, on all its components, applies clearly to the 1967 occupied territories, whose residents are subject to systematic oppression and domination on a daily basis, to the Palestinian refugees (subject to “deportation or forcible transfer of population”), and also – to a lesser extent – to Palestinian citizens of Israel (at least the 25 percent of them defined as ‘present absentees,’ forcibly deported from their homes but not their homeland, while the rest of them are subjected to minor forms of oppression).

Why use ‘apartheid’ rather than ‘settler-colonialism’ or ‘occupation?’ These terms are neither specific enough nor accurate enough. Colonialism on all its permutations is a generic term of domination from overseas, and it does not capture well a situation where two populations that regard themselves as indigenous live intermeshed within the same territory. Occupation is no longer an appropriate term. It refers to temporary military control, but Israeli rule is not temporary and not only of military nature: for all practical purposes Palestinian residents are subject to the control exercised by Israeli civil authorities which confiscate land, fund and build settlements, arm Jewish residents, protect and promote them legally, and construct infrastructure there. It is estimated that over $100 billion have been invest by the authorities on what is meant to have a permanent existence. In addition, the term ‘occupation’ refers to the 1967 territories but does not cover other aspects of the regime, which forms an integrated whole.

The one point Mitchell raises that is worthy of serious concern, is the problem of elevating terms that emerged in specific historical contexts and locations (Fascism, apartheid) into general theoretical concepts. This gives rise to methodological difficulties indeed, but these can be addressed by qualifying the argument in an appropriate manner. The more we move away from historical South African apartheid, which ended in 1994, the easier it would be to relate to it as a legal concept rather than a specific historical case.

Of course, there is a political issue to consider here: apartheid is defined as a crime, and the international community is under an obligation to fight it. This is not just a matter for academic debate – which is important in its own right. It is a matter with implications for political struggles, campaigning and mobilization. Activists have latched on to the concept because of its utility, and that is perfectly legitimate.

Finally, let us give thanks to Secretary Kerry, who facilitated – unwittingly – a new round of discussion of the issue. The current round has not repeated the cyclical arguments of the past. We are no longer restricted to debating the matter with reference to specific South African practices. Instead, international law is increasingly becoming the guiding framework. This also means undermining the authority of the usual apologists, South African liberal Jews who use their self-styled ‘expert’ position to exonerate Israel (Benjamin Pogrund, Hirsh Goodman, Richard Goldstone). And, we are beginning to overcome the barrier of the occupation and examine the Israeli regime as a whole, as an integrated but internally differentiated machinery of domination. We are making progress!

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