What Does 'Israeli Apartheid' Mean, Anyway?

The meticulous sub-division of people in Israel is guided by a principle of inequality that benefits the ruling class.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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A vigil for Nelson Mandela held by Palestinians and members of the African community in Old City of Jerusalem on December 7, 2013.
A vigil for Nelson Mandela held by Palestinians and members of the African community in Old City of Jerusalem on December 7, 2013.Credit: AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

What do those who say “Israeli Apartheid” mean?

They definitely don’t mean the official and popular biological racism that ruled South Africa. True, there is no lack of racist and arrogant attitudes here, with their attendant religious-biological undertones, but if one visits our hospitals one can find Arabs and Jews among doctors and patients. In that regard, our hospitals are the healthiest sector of society.

Those who say “Israeli Apartheid” refer to the philosophy of “separate development” that was prevalent in the old South Africa. This was the euphemism used for the principle of inequality, the deliberate segregation of populations, a prohibition on “mixing” and the displacement of non-whites from lands and resources for their exploitation by the masters of the land. Even though here things are shrouded by “security concerns,” with references to Auschwitz and heaven-decreed real estate, our reality is governed by the same philosophy, backed by laws and force of arms.

What, for instance?

There are two legal systems in place on the West Bank, a civilian one for Jews and a military one for Palestinians. There are two separate infrastructures there as well, including roads, electricity and water. The superior and expanding one is for Jews while the inferior and shrinking one is for the Palestinians. There are local pockets, similar to the Bantustans in South Africa, in which the Palestinians have limited self-rule. There is a system of travel restrictions and permits in place since 1991, just when such a system was abolished in South Africa.

Does that mean that apartheid exists only on the West Bank?

Not at all, it exists across the entire country, from the sea to the Jordan River. It prevails in this one territory in which two peoples live, ruled by one government which is elected by one people, but which determines the future and fate of both. Palestinian towns and villages suffocate because of deliberately restrictive planning in Israel, just as they do in the West Bank.

But Palestinians who are Israeli citizens participate in electing the government, unlike in South Africa?

That’s true. The two situations are similar, not identical. Arab citizens vote here, but they are removed from the decision-making processes that deal with their fate. There is another difference. In South Africa, an essential component of the system was a tight overlap between race and class, with the exploitation of the black working class in the interests of white-owned capital. Israeli capitalism does not depend on Palestinian workers, although cheap Palestinian labor played a major role in the rapid enrichment of different sectors in Israeli society following the 1967 war. South Africa had four racial groups (whites, blacks, coloreds and Indians.) Each one occupied a specific rung on the ladder of inequality, in order to perpetuate the privileges of the white population. The white race, English and Afrikaners, was defined as one nation, despite the large differences between them, whereas black Africans were divided into several tribe-based nationalities. This ensured that the whites were the largest group. Here, the separation is supposedly based on geography, designed to maintain and expand the privileges Jews enjoy.

But Jews too have sub-divisions and discrimination?

Definitely, according to origin (European Jews versus Arab Jews,) place of residence (center vs. periphery,) veterans vs. newcomers, or based on service in the military. However, compared to the Palestinians, even the most discriminated against and downtrodden Jews have more rights than the Palestinians living between the sea and the river. For example, the Law of Return applies to Jews of any origin but not to Palestinians, even those who themselves or whose parents were born here, but who now live in exile. Similarly, Jews can change their residence freely. Someone from Tel Aviv can re-locate to the West Bank, but someone from Bethlehem cannot move to the coastal areas.

The ladder of inequality has separate rungs for residents of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Palestinian citizens of sovereign Israel. These groups suffer from different degrees of violation of human and civil rights. There are sub-divisions at play that are designed to further fragment the other nation living here, with different approaches to “C”-designated areas on the West Bank, to Druze citizens, to Bedouin, Palestinians, Christians and Moslems. Any bureaucracy that creates such meticulous sub-divisions and classifications is guided by a principle of inequality that benefits one hegemonic group.

Are there other examples?

One can briefly mention the Afrikaner-style Prawer laws and Area C in the West Bank. From the 1950’s, the Afrikaner-led government in South Africa uprooted black, colored and Indian residents from their lands and homes to make room for white settlers. Everything was done in accordance with the prevailing white laws and legal logic. Those were the colonial underpinnings of the apartheid regime, which was established later. Here, too, the colonial component of uprooting the natives from their lands is proceeding in tandem with the policies of “separate development”.

Is there any hope?

Class-based apartheid in South Africa was not defeated. Critics on the left blame Nelson Mandela and other leaders for reaching an understanding with the previous regime whereby blacks would get the vote but whites would keep the money. While poverty remains “black” in South Africa, there is an alibi group of black Africans who became very wealthy. Nevertheless, one should not dismiss the transition to democracy and the social changes that took place in South Africa, as well as the methods of struggle demonstrated by Mandela and his comrades. That is why Israeli and Palestinian demonstrators last week carried his photos in demonstrations that the Israeli Defence Forces quelled by force.

But Shimon Peres eulogized Mandela warmly?

Mandela was a great forgiver. Peres played a major role in the security and economic ties Israel which established with the racist regime in South Africa and its pro-Nazi founders. As one of the founding fathers of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and the instigator of the “functional solution,” he bears a large responsibility for the policies of “separate development” that prevail here.

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