Israel has reinvented apartheid

Apartheid. This word tends to conjure up specific images and ideas: South Africa, Nelson Mandela, pariah, boycotts. This is why dialogue about Israel’s status as an apartheid state becomes – for Israel’s apologists – a tedious, nit-picking discussion about the similarities and differences between Israel and South Africa.

Apartheid, like genocide, has an internationally recognised legal definition. Genocides differ in terms of strategies, brutality and technique. The Rwandan genocide and the Nazi Holocaust were very different. Few of us, however, would argue that what happened in Rwanda was not genocide because it looked different from other genocides.

It is the same with apartheid. The 1998 Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court defines apartheid as actions or policies “committed in the context of an institutionalised 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.”

The South African version of apartheid, then, is not the be-all and end-all of apartheid and, given the definition of apartheid, Israel’s domination of the Palestinians fits the (universally accepted) bill.

Those who argue against the apartheid label try to separate Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the besieged Gaza Strip. The truth is that the “green line” exists on paper only. There is only one state, there is only one regime: the Israeli regime.

A million-and-a-half Palestinians living inside Israel can vote, but cannot legally organise against the system of Jewish supremacy. In East Jerusalem (still part of the West Bank under international law, but usually treated as a separate category), Jews have citizenship while Palestinians have residency rights but not citizenship.

Within the occupied territories, Palestinians live under military law and have no citizenship, whereas Jewish settlers in the same occupied territories live under civil law and have Israeli citizenship.

The differential treatment of Palestinians in different geographic areas is designed to work together to ensure the goal intrinsic to apartheid: ensuring unassailable domination by one group (Jews) over another (Palestinians) throughout the territory.

If Israel’s apologists want to encourage the “South Africa vs Israel” debate, then they must also accept that Israel’s inconsistent treatment of Palestinians is similar to South Africa in the 1980s, where some groups (coloureds and Indians) were briefly granted rights in order to strengthen the apartheid state’s ability to deprive the indigenous African majority of rights – a policy which, of course, failed badly.

Indigenous South Africans living in the townships also had a legal status different from Africans, who were given “citizenship” in the Bantustans created by the apartheid state.

The state of Israel exploits the different legal statuses of various areas to avoid having to enfranchise all the indigenous people, which would endanger Jewish domination. These systems work to enable Israel’s own apartheid project.

Israel’s spin doctors portray the country as an inventive “start-up” nation. Israel’s most potent innovation is its very own version of apartheid.

Suraya Dadoo is a researcher for Media Review Network, a Johannesburg-based advocacy group, and the co-author of Why Israel? The Anatomy of Zionist Apartheid: A South African Perspective (Porcupine Press, 2013).

‘Boycotts harm only Palestinians’

Bassem Eid does not mince his words. “Leila Khaled? She has no idea about her own people,” he says of the woman recently feted by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and its allies in South Africa. “She’s stuck in the middle of the last century.”

Eid is in South Africa to present a counter-narrative to the one being promoted by BDS and Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), and believes he is in a much better position to represent his people than Khaled.

“Palestinians in the diaspora don’t have the right to represent Palestinians in the occupied territories,” he says. “At the same time, we can’t represent those in the diaspora.”

A Palestinian human rights activist born in Jerusalem’s Old City, Eid spent 33 years of his life in a refugee camp. But he has no time for those who accuse Israel of being an apartheid state, and even less for those calling for a boycott.

“Israel is not an apartheid state,” he says. “I’ve been to the Apartheid Museum here in Johannesburg. What I saw there does not exist in any way in Israel. If apartheid still exists anywhere, it is in South Africa.

“As for these ridiculous boycott calls,” he continues, “people have to realise that boycotts harm only Palestinians. Our economy is based on the Israeli economy. More than 70 000 Palestinians go to work in Israel every day. Khaled, for example, has never even been in the West Bank or Gaza. It’s no wonder she doesn’t know what’s going on.

“If even just the settlements kicked out all Palestinian workers, we as a people would starve. And no one would help us. We know this very well. This is why we don’t need intervention from outsiders.

“I spend a lot of time in the occupied territories. If you ask my fellow Palestinians what three things they care about most, they won’t mention the wall or settlements. Instead, they are concerned about having a job that enables them to survive, and access to good healthcare and education for their children. A boycott endangers all three of these.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, he says, have done little to improve the lives of refugees. “It suits them when Palestinians suffer, it gives them more power.”

What, then, should South Africans who feel passionate about justice for Palestinians and the establishment of a lasting peace in the Middle East do?

“The truth is that Palestinians don’t really care what South Africans get up to,” Eid says. “To be honest, the money spent on IAW would be better spent on your own citizens. It would actually mean something. Give it to people who deserve it here, instead of throwing your money into the air. BDS isn’t achieving anything except giving Israel good PR.

“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate support for the cause of ensuring good lives for Palestinians. But BDS and IAW methods won’t achieve this. They’re just making the conflict more complicated. They are adding hatred to existing hatred.”

Eid says a lack of leadership on both sides is keeping peace out of reach. If he doesn’t have kind things to say about Hamas or the PA, the current Israeli leadership doesn’t fare much better.

“I hope a courageous Israeli leader will be elected this month. Only with such a leader can we build peace. My message to ordinary Israelis is that the occupation is causing harm not just to Palestinians, but to the State of Israel. If they look in the mirror and see that they are also harming themselves, then there is hope for achieving peace.”

Eid knows that his positions are unpopular among a large segment of diaspora Palestinian organisations. But he insists his views more closely reflect those of ordinary Palestinians.

“Look,” he says, “I know that a lot of people who read this will call me a CIA agent, a Mossad agent, a Zionist. But I don’t care what they call me. I’m proud to be here representing my people. My mission is to provide first-hand information on what’s really going on in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Michael Coetzee is a journalist with a special interest in Middle East affairs.

BDS supporters disrupted Bassim Eid’s talk at the University of Johannesburg on March 3, causing it to be called off. It is claimed that the protesters intimidated audience members. Campus security had to evacuate Eid and others.