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So It's Apartheid, Not Occupation. Now What

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A demonstration against the Israeli occupation, Jerusalem 2010.
A demonstration against the Israeli occupation, Jerusalem 2010.Credit: REUTERS

The term “occupation,” as applied to the West Bank, no longer matches reality there. What goes on in the territories cannot be understood today as being cut off from what goes on in all the areas under Israel’s control.

So says a courageous, straightforward and detailed new position paper published by B’Tselem, entitled: “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.” In this paper, the Israeli human rights organization declares: “The entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians.”

The new document provides facts and figures to explain the four areas in which this single principle engineers, geographically and politically, the lives of all 14 million people on both sides of the Green Line, half of them Jews and half Palestinians:

1. Control of the land: the gradual Judaization of the area at the expense of the Palestinian population, by means of expulsion, dispossession, land appropriation, home demolitions and prioritization of Jewish settlement by virtue of a long list of laws and regulations’

2. Citizenship: “Any Jew in the world and his or her children, grandchildren and spouses are entitled to immigrate to Israel at any time and receive Israeli citizenship, with all of its associated rights… Palestinians living in other countries cannot immigrate to the area… even if they, their parents or their grandparents were born and lived there”;

3. Freedom of movement: “Israel allows its Jewish and Palestinian citizens and residents to travel freely throughout the area. Exceptions are the prohibition on entering the Gaza Strip, which it defines “hostile territory,” and the (mostly formal) prohibition on entering areas ostensibly under Palestinian Authority responsibility (Area A)… Israel routinely restricts the movement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and generally forbids them from moving between the units. Palestinians from the West Bank who wish to enter Israel, East Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip must apply to the Israeli authorities”; and

4. Political participation: “political engineering excludes millions of Palestinians from participating in the processes that determine their lives and futures while holding them under military occupation… Israel also denies Palestinians political rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association.”

B’Tselem’s paper goes even further: It makes it clear that this same situation has existed since 1948. That Palestinian citizens of Israel also “do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens by either law or practice.” They face severe discrimination both in terms of land, as enshrined in various laws from 1948 to the present (the 1948 Absentee Property Law; the 2018 Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People), and actions: The Absentee Property Law enabled Israel “to appropriate vast tracts of Palestinian-owned land, including millions of dunams in communities whose residents were expelled or fled in 1948 and were barred from returning.”

Moreover, says B’Tselem, “Israel has used this land to build hundreds of communities for Jewish citizens – yet not a single one for Palestinian citizens. The exception is a handful of towns and villages built to concentrate the Bedouin population, which has been stripped of most of its proprietary rights… The Israeli regime severely restricts construction and development in the little remaining land in Palestinian communities within its sovereign territory. It also refrains from preparing master plans that reflect the population’s needs, and keeps these communities’ areas of jurisdiction virtually unchanged despite population growth. The result is small, crowded enclaves where residents have no choice but to build without permits.”

Since 1967, Israel has been implementing the same principle in the West Bank. There, under the patronage of the country’s political and justice systems – and with the support of Israelis – Israel has been focused on irreversibly reducing the areas allotted to living, employment and movement of Palestinians, while expanding the areas designated for Jews only: “Israel has instituted a separate planning system for Palestinians in the West Bank, chiefly designed to prevent construction and development. Large swathes of land are unavailable for construction, having been declared state land, a firing zone, a nature reserve or a national park. The authorities also refrain from drafting adequate master plans reflecting the present and future needs of Palestinian communities in what little land has been spared. The separate planning system centers on demolishing structures built without permits – here, too, for lack of choice. All this has trapped Palestinians in dozens of densely populated enclaves, with development outside them – whether for residential or public use, including infrastructure – almost completely banned,” according to the B’Tselem paper.

I read this document carefully and learned from it what I have known for many years already, as has anyone who has wanted to know: that there is not a single principle of an apartheid regime that has not been implemented in Israel since 1948. Its military government saw to that in both overt and covert ways, until it ended in 1966; a year later the boundaries of Israeli apartheid expanded by the same methods from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. And there may well be more to come.

So what has changed now? What prompted B’Tselem to publish this position paper at this time? Its authors are honest enough to pose that question themselves, at the end. Their reply: “Recent years have seen a rise in the motivation and willingness of Israeli officials and institutions to enshrine Jewish supremacy in law and openly state their intentions. The enactment of the Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People and the declared plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank have shattered the façade Israel worked for years to maintain.”

But unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing that has changed in all these years. The devious use of “masks” and a “façade” has led to the entrenchment here of a reality that can no longer be successfully combatted from within Israeli society alone. Israeli society has changed. The hundreds of thousands of settlers living throughout the West Bank and the total support they enjoy from the political majority in Israel, across its various parties and movements, along with the ideological brainwashing that goes on in schools and in the army – all this has profoundly changed the balance of power. Under such circumstances, the vast majority of the Israeli public probably wouldn’t even understand what the B’Tselem document is talking about.

What a shame. Because, 30 years ago when that human rights organization was founded, there were smart people here who said these sort of things in much stronger language and foresaw the coming disaster in great detail. “It’s only a question of time until the democratic order falls victim to the occupation,” the late Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell wrote in Hadashot. That was in 1989.

For his part, S. Yizhar proposed that the biblical Book of Joshua be read as a cautionary tale: “To say: You’ve been warned about what happens when a people sets out to conquer the land of another people, even if for the best reasons. Just read the Book of Joshua, and be frightened. True, not everyone is frightened, as we know, but perhaps some of the Jews who dwell here are against Joshua.” The great writer uttered these words in a speech he gave in Jerusalem at a conference for the Movement for Humanistic Jewry. The year was 1992. Then it was still possible to try to open the eyes of more than “some of the Jews” living in Israel.

Which is precisely what the founders of B’Tselem believed: that if Israelis really knew what was being done in the West Bank, if they knew about the oppression of the Palestinians there and the seizure of their land by Israelis, they would be outraged and would oppose it. I, too, believe this and considered it a great honor to be invited to sit on the organization’s first board of directors.

But what now?

This is how B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad, another brave Israeli of true stature, summarized the announcement that was sent to the press together with the position paper: “In Israel there is no democracy + occupation, but rather a single regime between the sea and the Jordan River that requires us to look at the full picture and to call it by its accurate name: apartheid.” He concludes on an optimistic note: “This sober look at the reality should not lead to despair, just the opposite. It is a call for change, for it was people who established this regime and people are the ones who can change it.”

Is that so? Who are these people? Are the ones who established and maintain and support this regime the ones who are going to change it? No! B’Tselem and the other human rights organizations must back this call with real action. They must defend the right of the minority of Israelis who oppose apartheid to fight it by breaking its laws – first and foremost, the anti-boycott law, which is a totally political piece of legislation designed to sustain the regime. They must defend the right to call for economic and cultural sanctions to be imposed on Israel. They must defend the right to issue this call from here, from Israel, to the international community. Not because other nations are more moral, but because this is the most effective, nonviolent political step to be taken – perhaps the only one that can halt Israel’s steady decline to moral and physical oblivion. Because, today, only a struggle from within that will bolster the pressure from without can bring about change.  

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