The consensus that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank does not constitute a form of apartheid is shifting on Wikipedia. While the validity of drawing an analogy between Israel and the apartheid regime of South Africa has long been debated on Wikipedia, a new article titled “West Bank bantustans” shows cracks in the editorial agreements that have stood for almost a decade on the volunteer-edited online encylcopedia.
Wikipedia has had an article on “Israel and the apartheid analogy” for almost 15 years. However, editors active in this arena told Haaretz that the new entry directly comparing Israel’s control of the West Bank to the Black-only enclaves set up in South Africa indicates a possible shifting of balance in the encyclopedia, where facts are decided by consensus between different groups of volunteer editors.
Editors note that just the fact that a new article with such a contentious title survived a proposal to delete it shows how real-world political events, namely Donald Trump’s Middle East plan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to annex parts of the West Bank, are undermining the factual basis of one of Israel’s most important public diplomacy talking points. According to this point, Israel supports a two-state solution and at least in theory strives for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank.
“The Trump plan put everything out in the open,” says the editor who opened the article, who uses the online name Oncewhile. “The last 25 years of peace talks provided a sense of what scraps were being left on the table for Palestinians, but those were ‘leaks,’ not firm proposals.”
Explaining how recent developments facilitated the new “bantustans” article, the editor adds that after the release of the Trump plan, “The ensuing annexation debate resulted in many reliable publications describing what the Israeli government are planning for their captive Palestinian population. As a result, it is no longer credible to argue that the Israeli government does not expect to trap the Palestinians in noncontiguous enclaves. This is the reason for the outcome in the deletion debate.”
But Jack Saltzberg, the head of the Israel Group, a pro-Israel advocacy group that also focuses on Wikipedia, disagrees. “This is simply another example of an anti-Israel editor creating an article with the singular purpose of promulgating negative and inaccurate information about Israel. Yes, it is a big deal, but no, it is not new,” he says.
“It’s a big deal because Wikipedia is a big deal because so many people, specifically students, get their immediate education through Wikipedia. But it’s not new. This happens all the time,” he says, adding that “it is nearly impossible to create a new article if it in any way shows the Palestinians in a negative light, not Israel.”
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If so, why has this article only now gone live and managed to stay online? Wikipedia, now entering its 20th year, has long been accused by various groups of having political biases. For example, Conservapedia was set up in 2006 to give evangelical Christians in the United States an encyclopedia better reflecting their religious worldview on evolution and climate change, with scientists’ widespread agreement on the factual basis of these issues deemed political.
Allegations of Wikipedia’s “liberal bias” have made headlines on Breitbart in recent years as the encyclopedia fought back against falsehoods pushed out by the Trump White House. Similar claims are even appearing in India, manifesting as claims of “anti-Hinduism” in debates about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist policies that critics say unfairly target the country’s Muslim minority.
Pro-Israel groups like Saltzberg’s have also long claimed that Wikipedia has a pro-Palestinian bent, but opposite claims of parity have also been voiced. For example, in Britain in 2018, a pro-Israel editor was accused of targeting critics of Israel and others in the British far-left in a case that was amplified by Russian media. These allegations went so far as to claim that the Wikipedia editor was a front for the British defense establishment if not the CIA.
Anatomy of an analogy
The “West Bank bantustans” article was created on November 12. Two days later, it was nominated for deletion, on the basis of the claim that it was not really a new article but only a biased “narrative already covered by, and part of, Israel and the apartheid analogy.”
The article “Israel and the apartheid analogy” was opened in 2006. One of over 3,000 articles on the topic, this page too has faced countless edits and rewrites by the various camps active on the encylopedia’s coverage of the conflict.
There were no less than 10 attempts to delete the analogy article during its first four years of life. When it was created in late May 2006 it was called “Israeli apartheid” – and in a testimony to Wikipedia’s political dynamics, by early June 2006 it was nominated for deletion for the first time. After it survived its first deletion debate, which also ended in a lack of consensus, its title was changed in a compromise to “Allegations of Israeli apartheid.”
By 2008, after eight additional attempts to have the article deleted by editors considered part of or close to the pro-Israel contingent on Wikipedia were thwarted, another debate was held. “I suggest pursuing a rename and a rewrite, since it’s very, very clear that there’s no consensus to delete,” the administrator overseeing that discussion ruled.
By 2010, the article had stabilized and a stalemate of sorts between the different sides emerged: Instead of deciding on the validity of the comparison, the article focused on the very existence of the debate regarding the “analogy.”
“Israel and the apartheid analogy is criticism of Israel charging that Israel has practiced a system akin to apartheid against Palestinians in its occupation of the West Bank. Some commentators extend the analogy to include treatment of Arab citizens of Israel, describing their status as second-class citizen,” the current version of the analogy article says.
Edit wars on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have had a fundamental influence on how Wikipedia addresses contentious issues; for example, the practice of locking articles to public editing and permitting only editors with a username and certain level of Wikipedia experience to contribute. The result has been the emergence of two ideological camps, so-called pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian editors, who have been locked in what some describe as an editorial stalemate.
Indeed, even though the analogy article has remained extremely contentious over the past decade, all attempts to have it fundamentally changed have failed, including an allegedly technical debate in 2017 regarding a suggestion to retitle the page “Israeli apartheid analogy,” which pro-Israel editors claimed was an attempt to push the article into non-neutral territory.
“I doubt there ever was a consensus on Israel’s apartheid status,” says Federico Leva, another editor active in the debate. “Wikipedia and its community don’t take a position on something like ‘is Israel’s occupation apartheid.’ We only describe what sources say, so the question is usually whether there’s consensus that a certain summary of the sources is accurate/appropriate.”
Now, this consensus regarding sources seems to be shifting.
“Remember, the [bantustans] article is not about any particular analogy – it is about describing the areas proposed for Palestinian ‘sovereignty,’ and how that has evolved over time,” says Onceawhile, the editor who opened the article. “Part of the name debate may be technical – is the word bantustan a ‘proper noun’ referring only to South Africa, or has it become a ‘common noun’ referring to entities with a reasonable level of similarity?”
In the past, such claims were easily relegated to other articles; for example, those about areas A, B and C in the West Bank, which were set up by the Oslo Accords and offered Israel and the Palestinian Authority different levels of control of different parts of the West Bank.
The new article now claims: “The West Bank bantustans, or West Bank cantons, figuratively described as the Palestine Archipelago, are the proposed noncontiguous enclaves for the Palestinians of the West Bank under a variety of U.S. and Israeli-led proposals to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
‘No single truth’
The opening highlights how the increasingly permanent status of the areas once considered under temporary Israeli control serves as the justification for a new article. A telling example can be found in the article in a special section dedicated to Trump’s peace plan, which calls for dividing the Palestinian state into five different areas. The section opens with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ claim that the plan would turn Palestine into “swiss cheese.”
According to Leva, one of the editors active in the debate, “There is no single truth or historical consensus on such a giant topic yet, and there probably won’t be for a long, long time. Any discussion of the topic is bound to be messy. The English Wikipedia merely reflects this cultural fact and cannot change it.”
The article, in that sense, reflects a wider shift in consensus on Israel’s intentions: General claims made in the media, even in opinion pieces in Haaretz, are now permitted greater significance than perhaps was possible in the past. The article states: “According to Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, ‘Netanyahu thus envisages not only that Palestinians in the West Bank will need Israeli permission to enter and exit their "homeland", which was also the case for the Bantustans, but that the IDF will be allowed to continue setting up roadblocks, arresting suspects and invading Palestinian homes, all in the name of "security needs"'.”
In the past, such analyses would have been dismissed by pro-Israel editors claiming that Haaretz, Israel’s sole paper of record, is biased. But today, such arguments, supported by official Israeli statements and academic research, resonate as an accurate reading of the political reality. For example, other sources in the article are academic papers like a 2020 work on the “one-state reality” emerging from Israel’s policies and the peace plan as envisaged by Trump and his son-in-law adviser, Jared Kushner.
Together these sources highlight the increasingly open Israeli policy of striving for annexations in the West Bank.
According to the different editors, the deletion failed to gain the needed consensus mainly because the pro-Israel editors focused solely on the article’s name.
As Leva puts it, “It’s possible that the users who supported the deletion will regroup, find an agreement on what article should contain this information, and reach a consensus on merging [‘West Bank bantustans’] into it. The article may still be moved to another title. I’m also sure that the discussion on what sources and language to use within the article will continue.”
Indeed, as no consensus was reached on the article’s existence, a new bid to have it renamed has been launched.
Saltzberg isn’t optimistic. “The consensus [on English Wikipedia] is still the same and this article proves it: anti-Israel!” he says.
“Since the ‘antis’ have taken over the entire [Israeli-Palestinian] topic area, the 30/500 protection has allowed them to continue their fiefdom with impunity,” he says, referring to the rule allowing participation only by editors with over 30 days and 500 edits under their belt. “It is near impossible to create a new article if it in any way shows the Palestinians in a negative light, not Israel.”
Onceawhile takes offense at claims that he is somehow anti-Israel or even that Wikipedia should reflect the two-sided nature of the debate regarding the conflict. “Our work on Wikipedia is not, or at least should not be, a competition between two opposing factions,” he says.
“Wikipedia remains the world’s primary open source publication on Israel and Palestine, and by working with those we disagree with we are trying to create a neutral picture of the situation. Each argument removes barriers between the two communities. In the case of this discussion on the West Bank bantustans, even the most ardent Israeli propagandist will have learnt something about the conditions of the Palestinians, and the most ardent Palestinian propagandist will have learnt that much of history happens by accident rather than design.”