Apartheid? The Problem Isn't How You Call the Occupation, but the Fact It Exists

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Palestinian laborers line up to cross a checkpoint at the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, June 30, 2020
Palestinian laborers line up to cross a checkpoint at the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, June 30, 2020Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The director-general of the B’Tselem human rights group, Hagai El-Ad, made much noise while taking the easy way out in wrapping Israel and the territories it occupied in 1967 under one mantle, considering them as being one big entity, lying between the Mediterranean and Jordan River, all subject to an apartheid regime (Haaretz, January 12). In one stroke he annexed the territories and granted the Palestinians a status of second-class citizens of the State of Israel, with its borders stretching from sea to river.

Sterling examples of democracy, which Israel is not, have conquered countries and territories before. Great Britain conquered Egypt and Sudan, France conquered Algeria, even turning it into a French “department,” and the United States conquered Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fundamentalist Israel is no longer Jewish, says Avrum Burg on Haaretz Weekly podcast. LISTEN

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In terms of international law, an occupation is a unique situation and the Geneva Conventions, which were formulated in order to regulate life under occupation, try to limit the inherent infringements that occupation causes. A violation of these conventions and laws is considered a violation of international law, even a war crime – and that is without the definition of apartheid being ascribed to the occupation.

Human rights lawyer Michael Sfard (Haaretz, July 9) determined that the prevailing conditions in the territories constitute apartheid, since by his interpretation “apartheid is a regime that, using all the tools at its disposal – law, policy, practice – creates the superiority of one group and imposes inferiority on another, usually manifested in institutional discrimination regarding rights and resources.”

Although this is an expansion of the definition used in the Rome Convention, it is surely a legitimate one, definitely a moral one. Columnist Gideon Levy stretched the definition even more, determining that other than for a period of six months, Israel always was and still remains an apartheid state (Haaretz, January 17).

It’s not clear why Levy gave a pass to the period between the cancellation of the military administration imposed on Arab citizens of Israel and the conquest of territories in 1967, since in those six months, the culture of apartheid against Israel’s Arab citizens was well entrenched. The abolition of the military administration did not cover up the alienation towards and segregation of the country’s Arabs or the fear and hostility felt by Jews towards them. These are elements in the composition of Jewish national identity, elements which only underwent further refinement over time.

Thus, the supremacy of one group over another does not necessarily require an occupation, just as it’s wrong to see every occupation as apartheid. Moreover, using a broad brush with which to paint Israel and the occupation in the same shade allows one to ignore the fact that in every occupation one group imposes an inferior status – political, cultural, economic – on another, under the umbrella of international law.

The gravest flaw of those defining Israel as an apartheid state lies in presenting the Palestinian problem as a humanitarian one, one of human rights and equality before the law. According to this viewpoint, if the Palestinians could only build houses as they wished, if only the roadblocks were removed and family reunification was allowed, the occupation would vanish and morality would heave a sigh of relief.

This is the crux of the bluff, since the problem is not the nature of the occupation but its very existence. Bemoaning the transition of the occupation into an apartheid regime is self-deception at best, since according to this view, an occupation can be “enlightened.”

The ready answer to this argument is that in order to get rid of the scourge of apartheid, Israel needs to become a binational state. But this illusion, if fulfilled, will turn Israel into a permanent apartheid state, presented as a shining example of a solution to a national conflict.

The advocates of a binational state or of annexation, and there is no ideological difference between the two in practice, aren’t interested in the least to know if the Palestinians wish to be part of a state that predetermines their inferior status while depriving them of their national identity.

The other option is a tireless striving for establishing an independent Palestinian state. This will require a revolution in Israel’s regime or in its Jewish citizens’ consciousness, or powerful international pressure (all of which don’t seem realistic for now), but at least these ideas point the way towards a path for action, unlike cries of apartheid which only feed into a sanctimonious discourse.

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