Accepting the apartheid label will normalise Israel

Admitting the reality of apartheid is the first step towards a peaceful and democratic future in Israel and Palestine.

Israeli soldiers take position during clashes with Palestinians protesters following a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, near Qalandiy
Palestinians make their way through Israeli Qalandia checkpoint in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque, near the West Bank city of Ramallah [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

At what point does an occupation transform into something entirely different? Is 50 years enough? Half a century after Israel’s 1967 lightning takeover of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, is it still accurate to characterise its control of these territories as a “military occupation”, which by definition has always meant a temporary phenomenon?

Occupations are at the core military systems established to regulate the presence and behaviour of a foreign army over a conquered territory and its indigenous population. The underlying assumption informing the law of occupation is that a pronounced de facto and de jure difference exists between the occupying country and the territory it has occupied.  

Yet, over the past 50 years the Green Line separating pre-1967 Israel from the areas it captured has been geographically and politically erased. In addition to connecting the two regions with roads, electricity grids, and a customs union, Israel has moved hundreds of thousands of settlers to East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Currently, two Supreme Court Justices, several Cabinet and Knesset members and numerous other public servants live there.

Far from ameliorating this situation, the Oslo process – which is today almost half as old as the occupation itself – enabled the ongoing de facto erasure of the Green Line. Effectively, then, for well over a generation there has been one state between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea, and the Israeli government is its sovereign.

READ MORE: Why Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel

The UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, almost every country on earth and even Israel’s own High Court consider the territories occupied in 1967 to be legally separate from Israel. Decades of reports by Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organisations unequivocally demonstrate Israel’s systematic violations of the laws of occupation.

Israel’s responses to these accusations have been twofold. First, like other human rights abusers, the government does whatever it can to deny, rebut, or muddy the claims. Second, the Israeli government denies even the applicability of the laws of occupation, arguing that because the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem were not legally part of Egypt or Jordan before the war, they are merely “disputed“, meaning Israel has a free hand to expropriate and settle the land while denying Palestinians rights otherwise guaranteed by international law.

From occupation to apartheid

Understanding Israel as an apartheid system reveals the urgent need for a paradigm shift in how we understand and attempt to transform the political reality in Israel and Palestine.


Ironically, today the most virulent supporters and harshest critics of Israel’s control of the conquered territories believe the debate over whether they are occupied is no longer relevant.

On the one hand, many members of Israel’s present ruling coalition would like to end the debate about the legal status of the Palestinian territories by simply annexing much, if not all, of the West Bank (Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967), transforming the de facto annexation into a de jure one while leaving Gaza’s fate to the international community.

On the other hand, a growing number of legal scholars believe that after 50 years of unrelenting repression and settlement the occupation itself rather than its specific manifestations has become illegal. While more and more Palestinians and even some Israelis maintain that the correct term to describe the situation is no longer occupation. It is apartheid.

Critics of the use of the apartheid label argue that it is a false analogy, claiming that the historical and political experiences in both countries are too different to justify using such a highly charged and historically specific term vis-a-vis Israel. But the fact that Israel’s system of ethnic domination and exclusion is different from South Africa’s no more delegitimises its categorisation as an apartheid system than the unique experiences of Italy and France would challenge their similar characterisation as democracies.

Apartheid – not only in its South African experience, but in its clear definition under the 1973 International Covenant on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid – possesses a fundamental characteristic that defines its practice wherever it exists: “two populations, one of them endowed with all the civil rights and the other denied all rights”.

READ MORE: HRW condemns Israel’s ’50 years of occupation abuses’

These words come not from the 1973 covenant but from the mouth of Israel’s greatest diplomat, Abba Eban, who uttered them less than a week after the conclusion of the Six-Day War in warning his colleagues that such a situation would be very difficult to defend. But they anticipate the Covenant’s description of apartheid as “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.

New tools needed for securing Palestinian rights

Understanding Israel as an apartheid system reveals the urgent need for a paradigm shift in how we understand and attempt to transform the political reality in Israel and Palestine. Instead of asking how to end the occupation and create two states, decision-makers need to consider how to democratise the one state reality existing between the River and the Sea. Instead of continuing to use the law of occupation to criticise Israel’s policies, new tools need to be developed to secure the Palestinian right to self-determination within a context where territorially grounded statehood is no longer (and likely never was) a possibility.

In this context, far from singling out Israel, the apartheid label would normalise it, allowing the same broad range of strategies that have worked elsewhere to be deployed here, giving Israelis and Palestinians alike new tools to fight for a peaceful, just and democratic future for all the country’s inhabitants. After 50 years of violence, oppression and war, both peoples deserve a better future. Admitting the reality of apartheid is the first step in that direction. 

Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme visiting fellow at SOAS, University of London.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.