March 04, 2009

Why Israel is an apartheid state

We are in Apartheid Week, and a good time to revisit the question. How similar is the regime in Israel to the defunct Apartheid regime? We can answer that question by pointing the many similarities, as many have done extensively. Stop The Wall has an excellent summary of all the aspects that justify the use of the term. Leila Farsakh has another excellent analysis of the similarities and differences. See also Global Exchange, and the two parts Guardian's report by Chris McGreal, part I, and part II. Here's is Stop The Wall, on the very core of the analogy:
Apartheid was known as “colonialism of a special type” because of the fact that it was a colonial project in which the colonizer sought to permanently settle in the colonized land and replace the indigenous population, and where the “ruler” was not somewhere in Europe but occupying the same territory. The Zionist project is a European construct, born out of European nationalism expressed in nation-statehood during the era of colonialism. The Palestinian struggle for liberation is in essence an anti-colonial struggle. Inherent within any colonial project is a racist, Euro-centric worldview; but the racism is magnified in this “special” kind of colonialism, or Apartheid. Denying the very human existence of Palestinians with the Zionist adage of “a land without a people for a people without a land”, Zionist racial separation intends to use intolerant xenophobic policies and practice as a means to expel Palestinian Arabs from their homeland, defining them as a “demographic threat.” Racism under the Jewish State is both by law and by practice. Envisaged as a state for Jews, that is, a state of which every Jewish individual throughout the world would be a potential citizen, it became imperative for its legislative body, the Knesset to immediately define in law those persons who would qualify as actual or potential citizens, and those who would be excluded - that is, non-Jews in general, and Palestinian Arabs in particular. In 1950 the Israeli Knesset passed two laws: the Law of Return, defining the boundaries of inclusion ('every Jew has the right to immigrate into the country') and the Absentee Property Law, defining the boundaries of exclusion ('absentee'), i.e. Palestinians. Under these laws, every Jew throughout the world is legally entitled to become a citizen of the “state of Israel” upon immigration into the country. In 1952, the Knesset passed the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency (Status) Law, which gave exclusive rights to Israelis of "Jewish nationality," including the right to purchase land. Jewish institutions such as the Jewish National Fund were prohibited by law to sell the land they “owned” in “Israel”-some 97 percent-to non-Jews and were enjoined to hold all land "for the whole Jewish people." Today the Jewish National Fund, a member of the World Zionist Organisation, administers 93% of the “land of Israel” the vast majority of which was Palestinian-owned property that was gradually confiscated in the years since 1948. Such laws parallel to the Apartheid South Africa Natives Land Act, No 27 of 1913 and The Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923, making it illegal for blacks to purchase or lease land from whites except in reserves and restricting black occupancy to less than eight per cent of South Africa's land. The Jewish State issuance of identity cards based on race—their defining and indicating race in the ID and basing the ID policy on racial classification, is similar to the Apartheid South African Population Registration Act, Act No 30 of 1950 where a national register was created in which every person's race was recorded. A Race Classification Board took the final decision on what a person's race was in disputed cases. Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act, Act No 67 of 1952, commonly known as the Pass Laws, forced black people to carry identification with them at all times. A pass included a photograph, details of place of origin, employment record, tax payments, and encounters with the police. It was a criminal offence to be unable to produce a pass when required to do so by the police. No black person could leave a rural area for an urban one without a permit from the local authorities. The idea of “two races” or “two people” is one of the basic components of the racist colonial project, as the establishment of a “Jewish People” is a construct and tool of the Zionist project to legitimize it and to define the very real target of its racism.

Israel's willing apologists usually respond by nitpicking on the differences. There are of course many differences, beginning with the fact that 'Israel' has only 6 letters and 'South Africa' has 11, and ending with the fact that skin color is not mentioned in Israeli laws. In countries where the public is not brainwashed (i.e., everywhere but the United States), the apartheid analogy is today common currency. It is clear to every sentient being that racialized laws governing land ownership and the existence of separate roads are more important features than the absence of, say, laws against miscegenation. It is clear that the fact that Palestinians can urinate at the same toilet as Jews on the Tel-Aviv beach is less important that the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are not allowed to get to that beach.

More important that enumerating similarities is to abstract from the concrete and historically specific regimes the elements of a general crime. Just as not every murder need be carried out in the same manner as Cain's original crime, not every apartheid must be exactly like South Africa. There would be no point of having a 'crime of apartheid' if the only intention was to outlaw the one Apartheid regime in South Africa. Let's refresh our memory. The U.N. defines the crime of apartheid this way:
for the purpose of the present Convention, the term "the crime of apartheid",which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation an discrimination as practised in southern Africa, shall apply to the following inhuman acts 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) Denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person:

(i) By murder of members of a racial group or groups;

(ii) By the infliction upon the members of a racial group or groups of serious bodily or mental harm, by the infringement of their freedom or dignity, or by subjecting them to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;

(iii) By arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group or groups;

(b) Deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part;

(c) Any legislative measures 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;

d) Any measures including legislative 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;

(e) Exploitation of the labour of the members of a racial group or groups, in particular by submitting them to forced labour;

(f) Persecution of organizations and persons, by depriving them of fundamental rights and freedoms, because they oppose apartheid.


Now, there is can be no shred of a doubt that Israel commits all of these crimes, except perhaps e, against Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. There is no doubt that a., c. , d. and f. are also committed against Palestinians in 1948 Palestine. Lemma c. also apply to the refugees, who are prevented from returning to their homes, as is their human right, for the very same purpose of maintaining domination. And certainly, Israel's actions meeting these definitions are
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
Israel's apologists have generally argued three defenses, all unsubstantial.


Israel's apologists argue first that the occupation is temporary. The Occupied Palestinian Territories do not form part of Israel, and therefore the definition doesn't apply. This is of course no defense against the committing of apartheid inside 48 and in the officially annexed East Jerusalem. nor does it apply to the refugees. It also ignores the fact that the definition of the crime does not relate to borders. There is no mention of borders in the definition and no reason why one would not be able to commit apartheid outside one's official borders. One could argue that Israeli crimes against Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories can be better prosecuted under the laws governing belligerent occupation. But that is a technicality. These laws that protect people under occupation are supposed to prevent many of the same practices that constitute apartheid. By committing the crimes enumerated in the aforementioned convention, Israel is both guilty of apartheid and of war crimes. More important is that the occupation does not qualify as temporary by any factual measure. It is over forty years long. There is a heavy civilian Israeli infrastructure, including highways, industrial zones and full fledged cities, that Israel built in the OPT. Israel has never acted in a way suggesting an intention to give up control of the OPT. The OPT are therefore under both belligerent occupation and apartheid. Indeed, that the belligerent occupation was the process that led to the creation of apartheid. Belligerent occupation is to apartheid here as kidnapping is to rape. One can be guilty of both against the same victim.

Even assuming that Israel accepts to evacuate small enclaves in the West Bank, what would be the status of these enclaves? The clearest signpost is Gaza. Gaza is an enclave. Although Israel "withdrew" its civilians and soldiers from Gaza, it does not recognize Gaza as independent or as outside Israel. Israel maintains the right to decide who rules Gaza, what and who goes in and out of Gaza, how is Gaza's economy to function, what is Gaza's currency, etc. We can see this a blueprint of what Israel means by "ending the occupation." And the only sensible meaning is that Israel means apartheid. The people of Gaza are subjected to the full power of the Israeli state, including the power to kill them at will, and they are separate, oppressed and unequal.


The second apologetic argument is that the discrimination is not based on race, and therefore the apartheid concept is inapplicable. This argument relies on a restricted reading of the term 'race' and 'racial group' that no serious authority on racism will accept today. 'Race' is a social category based on descent. It is immaterial whether Israeli law does or does not define Jews and Palestinians as separate 'races.' Suffice that these are legally distinct categories defined by descent. Discrimination against Hispanics in the U.S. is racism, even though Hispanics were never defined legally as as a "racial group" in the U.S. the way African-Americans were. The fact is that in Israel, people are legally segregated and discriminated based on their descent. If your mother was Jewish, you get one treatment, and if your mother was Palestinian, you get another treatment. If your "ancestors" lived in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, you can live there. If your grandmother lived there 70 years ago you cannot.

Furthermore, the convention against the crime of apartheid has a preamble that recalls the various other conventions that inform the text. These instruments relate apartheid to racial discrimination, human rights, rights of colonized people and the convention against Genocide. In order to reflect this context that clarifies the crime of apartheid, one must understand and define apartheid through the harm that the convention seeks to avoid, the harm it does to the victims. It isn't the racial theory behind Apartheid that the convention criminalizes, but the list of proscribed practices that create and maintain a domination by one group over another. 'Racial discrimination ' is defined in the U.N. convention for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. This convention, mentioned in the preamble, specifies:
1. In this Convention, the term "racial discrimination" shall mean 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. (OHCR)
Racial discrimination is not discrimination based on belonging to a racial group. That would be a circular definition since races do not exist outside the context of discrimination. On the contrary, a 'racial group' is any group that suffers from (or inflicts) 'racial discrimination.' Apartheid is an extreme form of state sponsored and legalized racial discrimination.


The last refuge of the scoundrel is "negotiations." According to this line of apologetics, we shouldn't seek legal means against Israel because Israel is "negotiating." Except it doesn't, and when it does, it does so in bad faith and with imaginary counterparties such as Mahmoud Abbas, counteparties that don't even represent themselves. And beside, you could apply the same principles to every street robbery:
No officer, this is no matter for the police to intervene in. We are negotiating. I gave him a choice, 'the money or your life,' and I'm waiting for the counter-offer.

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