Does Israeli governance over Palestinians follow in the footsteps of South African apartheid?

Image Credit: The Intercept

Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the region of Israel and Palestine has been home to one of the most renowned and controversial conflicts in modern history. Over the last 70 years, numerous escalations have occurred in the region such as the Six Day War in 1967 between Israel and neighbouring Arab states, and the recent Gaza War of 2014 which resulted in the deaths of 7 Israeli citizens and at least 2,000 Palestinians, recorded by the United Nations.

Over the past 2 weeks, another spike in violence has occurred, as Hamas, the military governing body in Gaza fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, most of which were intercepted by Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ anti-missile defence system. The Israeli military has responded by dropping hundreds of its own bombs onto the Gaza Strip, a densely populated Palestinian territory just 365 square km in size situated on the Mediterranean coast. The result of such escalations is at least 230 Palestinian civilian deaths and 12 Israeli deaths. These disputes have stemmed from the events in a Jerusalem neighbourhood, Sheikh Jarrah, where the Israeli Supreme Court recently passed a ruling that allowed the eviction of the 38 Palestinian families who currently live there. Israeli settler families plan to occupy the homes once the eviction has been carried out, despite such an eviction being deemed as illegal under international law.

The Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah have called the neighbourhood their home since 1956 after they were forcibly evicted from their previous homes in historic Palestine during the 1948 ‘Nakba’ (the Arabic word for catastrophe), an event in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced to make way for the creation of the State of Israel. This eviction pattern has continued ever since, and Israeli settlements continuously appear throughout the West Bank, a Palestinian territory meant to be governed solely by the Palestinian National Authority. As of now, there are over 250 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which house around 680,000 Israelis. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, all of these settlements are illegal under international law, and only Israel and the United States claim that such settlements are not illegal.

These recent evictions, which have been condemned by the international community, have started to highlight similarities between the Israeli governance over Palestinians and the old apartheid regime of South Africa. Although many Palestinians do not live within territory governed by Israel, almost every Palestinian is significantly affected by its governance. In Israel, there are currently 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, with another 2.1 million Palestinians living in Gaza and just over 3 million living in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Tactics of governance such as housing rights based on ethnicity, military checkpoints, disproportionate levels of development investment, and military police treatment are all attributes that are associated with apartheid rule in South Africa that governed between 1948 and 1994. However, these are all occurrences within Israel and the Palestinian territories as well.

It must be understood what apartheid in South Africa was, and how it affected both White and Black South Africans. The system of racial segregation of apartheid was introduced by the all-White minority government of South Africa. Under such a regime, the majority Black population of South Africa was heavily marginalised in all aspects, be it was employment, housing, voting or education. Apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”, which of course can be applied to the governmental system of South Africa between 1948 and 1994.

There were various aspects of segregation and racial oppression which defined the South African apartheid. Firstly, the Population Registration Act was introduced in 1950, which dictated that civilians had to be registered according to their racial group, providing the government with a record of ethnic populations across the country. In the same year, the Group Areas Act was passed and the physical segregation between Black and White South Africans began. Black South Africans were forcibly removed from areas to make way for White residents, as they were moved into Black-only regions. These borders of segregation were based upon the Natives Land Act of 1913, which restricted Black ownership and housing to only a tenth of South African land, a principle that continued throughout the apartheid. The legality of separating Black people from living in the same neighbourhood as White people was confirmed through the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act in 1959, a law that prevented Black South Africans from living within most major cities.

Apartheid also impacted freedom of movement for Black South Africans. Any Black South African who wanted to work outside of their ‘homeland’ area needed a pass, which needed to be carried at all times, in order to do so. Failure to obtain such a pass, or leave the homeland without it, were grounds on which Black people could be arrested. The government purposefully set up townships on the periphery of urban centres to house Black and ‘coloured’ (people of Indian descent in South Africa) people in order to keep them away from business opportunities in cities and also prevent protests and riots occurring in these urban areas. Moreover, the General Law Amendment Act of 1962 intended to ban social gatherings for Black civilians, sometimes in cases of gatherings over one person.

Voting restrictions were also implemented by the White supremacist government in South Africa to ensure that it would be difficult for Black citizens to break the system of oppression. During apartheid, the Orange Free State, as well as the Transvaal region completely denied Black people the right to vote, and only White men could be elected to Parliament in Cape Province. During the 1970s the government temporarily allowed Black South Africans to vote in independent elections in the Black homelands, but this was suspended in the following decade. As the definition states, this regime aimed to oppress and dominate the Black and coloured groups of South Africa and maintain the domination of the White community in the country.

So how do these aspects of South African oppression compare to the current situation in Palestine? For nearly every Palestinian, these measures of apartheid will seem largely indistinguishable from the rules and regulations they experience, whether they live in Israel itself or within Palestinian territory. However, these experiences are not limited to just the current situation, they cover the last 73 years since the creation of Israel.

The intricacies of the conflict largely began with the foundation of the state of Israel, after the attempted implementation of the 1947 UN Partition Plan and the subsequent Arab-Israeli War. The plan for Israel was born out of the ideology of Zionism, one which advocates for the creation of a Jewish state after centuries of Jewish diaspora. Such diaspora was coupled with continued Antisemitism and persecution against Jews, particularly across Europe.  Bias towards a Israeli superiority over neighbouring Palestine began with this partition, as much of the land allocated to the Jewish state was the best for agriculture and hosted many of the major economic and urban centres. Throughout this process of partition and even after, Zionists and Israelis forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their towns, in which they had lived for centuries before. Whole towns and communities were even murdered by Zionist militants. This event of forced expulsion and displacement became to be known as the ‘Nakba’ by Palestinians, an event which is remembered every year on the 15th of May. By definition, the Nakba can be defined as an ethnic cleansing, and the oppression of Palestinians was only just beginning.

Image Credit: Aljazeera

One of the most glaring issues of Israeli occupation over Palestinians is the restriction of movement. As a result of the Arab-Israeli War, only 22% of historical Palestine remained under Palestinian control. Furthermore, after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel took over the administration of Palestinian territories: The West Bank and Gaza. As of today, Palestinians cannot travel between the two territories without an Israeli permit, something which is said to be almost impossible to obtain. B’Tselem, a human rights group that advocates for the end of the Israeli occupation over Palestine, comments on the situation for Palestinians wanting to travel, stating that “When travel permits are required by Israel, they are given through a lengthy, non-transparent and arbitrary bureaucratic process”. Such restrictions make it increasingly difficult for Palestinians to leave the areas in which they live, and limit economic opportunities.

Restrictions on movement are bolstered by the various checkpoints that the Israeli government has established both within the West Bank and along the border with Israel. There are 140 checkpoints within the West Bank, and around 70,000 Palestinians with Israeli work permits cross through these obstacles every day on their way to work. This is the reality for these Palestinians: in order to get work, they must request a permit from the same government which forcibly expelled their grandparents from the homes which now lie on the other side of these checkpoints. Even within East Jerusalem, which was originally meant to be governed by Palestine until 1967, a concrete wall has cut off 140,000 Palestinians from the rest of the city. This wall now acts as an ugly scar that snakes through Jerusalem, the holiest city in Judaism and one that is littered with historical buildings and rich history.

The Israeli occupation of much of the West Bank also limits economic growth for Palestinians. Much of the West Bank is now under Israeli governance, and the Palestinian-administered areas are enclosed, isolating them from global markets and access to natural resources and suitable farmland. Reports from the United Nations and various human rights reports also highlight this, as well as the Israeli blockade that has been put in place on Gaza, cutting the territory off from external trade and access to resources. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) also reported that it “has hollowed out the agricultural and industrial sectors and weakened the ability of the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory to compete at home and abroad” in their 2017 report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian People.

Looking at how Israel not only treats the Palestinians that it governs over but also the Palestinians that it does not directly control, you would think you were looking at apartheid South Africa were it not for context. Restrictions on movement, housing and economic opportunity were all core aspects of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Yet these are all components that can be seen within the governance of Israel. Palestinians are told where to live within their own territories, they are told where they can work, and the journey to such employment may take hours due to checkpoints. On top of all of this, Israel imposes economic sanctions on Palestine, completely cutting off the Gaza territory and restricting trade within Palestinian-administered areas of the West Bank.

The terminology used to describe the Israel-Palestine conflict needs to be changed. Firstly, it would be more appropriate to call it an occupation rather than a conflict. The war of 1947-49 was not so much a war, but an ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Arguably most importantly, the country of Israel seems not to be a democratic country, rather an apartheid state which systematically dominates and oppresses a racial group, the Palestinians, with the intention of maintaining the Jewish-majority state. Human rights group B’Tselem support this latter claim, stating that “Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it… we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid.” Israel does not operate two separate systems in separate areas, but instead conducts an apartheid in which Palestinians are marginalised at the expense of Israeli dominance.

Due to the fact that the Israeli governance meets the criteria of committing apartheid on a number of counts, various groups within the United Nations describe Israel as an apartheid state, along with the majority of human rights groups such as B’Tselem, Yesh Din, and Human Rights Watch. Is it time that the rest of the world changes its rhetoric and recognises Israel’s apartheid?