“When I can’t travel on the roads the settlers travel, what is this if not apartheid?” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat half-asked, half-asserted in an interview with television’s Channel 10. Those separate roads may be one of the most tangible symbols of the regime of separation between settlers and Palestinians, along with the warped legal system Israel uses to run the territories, which has one law for settlers and another for Palestinians, and the verdicts that encourage this separation whenever they ratify land thefts by either settlers or the state.
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Indeed, “apartheid” has become an easy-to-absorb, symbolic linguistic coinage that ostensibly encapsulates all the evil and brutality of the occupation. But for all the harsh associations the term evokes, apartheid is merely a whitewashed term that seeks to hide an even harsher reality – the occupation. For according to those who cling to the term “apartheid” to describe the situation in the territories, if Israel had only given the Palestinians equal rights and let them travel on the wide roads it paved for the settlers, and if the occupation’s subjects could only have come and gone as they pleased, as if they were settlers, the situation would have been terrific. The occupation would have disappeared, and the Palestinians’ national aspirations would have had no justification.
Occupation by its nature creates deep discrimination and enormous disparities between the rights of the occupier and the occupied. These don’t relate only to the way the occupation shapes daily life, or to the restrictions it places on freedom of movement, freedom of expression and the legal remedies to which the occupied are entitled. Occupation thwarts or delays the realization of national aspirations for independence and sovereignty, but it doesn’t conceal them. Apartheid, in contrast, destroys the basis of equality between citizens of the same state.
The British occupations of Egypt and India, the French occupation of Algeria and the American occupation of Iraq could have been considered apartheid because of the differences in rights accorded to the occupier and the occupied. Yet nobody ever defined these regimes as apartheid. The reason for this was the understanding that occupation is not a natural or perpetual situation, even if it lasts for decades. Therefore, it must comply with the conditions set down in the international conventions that regulate situations of occupation.
At the heart of this understanding lies recognition of the fact that the occupied population isn’t an integral part of the occupying country. They have their own national identity and existence, and they have no intention of dissolving it into the identity and existence of the occupying state. All this differs from apartheid in South Africa, where the state’s white citizens imposed a formal, multilayered regime of separation on the black citizens who constituted the majority.
And this is why the left is mistaken – or more accurately, confused – when it adopts apartheid as a greater danger than the occupation itself. It’s as if it were saying, “Give us an enlightened occupation, and we could live with it just fine.” This trend also includes another interesting development, which holds that if we can’t end the occupation, we’ll create a binational state in which the government will be forced to grant the Palestinians equal political and civil rights. This is paternalism. Did anyone ask the Palestinians if they want a binational state? Have they already given up their aspirations to become a free people in their own land?
The left’s use of the term “apartheid” is nothing more than a cry of despair and frustration over its inability to change the government’s policy – a kind of cry for help to the world to save us from ourselves, so we won’t become like South Africa. For if the world helped destroy one apartheid regime, maybe it would be possible to recruit it for the same mission once again, this time for us, the bold liberals, who for years now haven’t even gone out to demonstrate against the occupation.
Anyone who nevertheless wants to find apartheid can find it in the Jewish Israeli attitude toward the state’s Arab citizens – but not in the territories. In the territories, there’s an occupation. And no more attention-getting label, like apartheid, can conceal its ugliness.