Gaza is Israel’s Soweto

Israel’s apartheid will collapse, just as South Africa’s did.

Gaza massacre Reuters
Palestinian demonstrators are seen during a protest marking the 70th anniversary of Nakba in the southern Gaza Strip May 15, 2018 [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

Police or soldiers fire live ammunition at unarmed protesters demanding equal rights, killing or seriously injuring many: Sharpeville, South Africa, 21 March 1960; Soweto, South Africa, 16 June 1976; Gaza, Israeli-controlled Palestinian Territory, 14 May 2018. 

Similar violence, similar system?

The premise of the growing, international BDS (Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions) movement is that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people is comparable to the apartheid regime that existed in South Africa from 1948 to 1994 and therefore justifies comparable measures. Is this true, as a black South African, Desmond Tutu, has said for many years? Or is it a “false and malicious” “slander”, as a Jewish white South African, Richard Goldstone, has claimed? 

The core of apartheid (separateness) is racial discrimination in access to citizenship and the right to vote in a particular territory (among groups with comparable connections to the territory).

Historically, it developed when European settlers were outnumbered by the indigenous people(s). It was avoided or ended in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand because the (mainly) Christian-European settlers reduced the indigenous people(s) to small minorities (and outnumbered the descendants of Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery). But in South Africa in May 1948, the Christian-European settlers faced a black majority. And in Palestine in May 1948, the Jewish-European settlers faced an Arab majority. 


Two different methods were chosen to respond to this common dilemma and resist the post-1945 trend against racial discrimination and the push for one-person-one-vote democracy. Wishing to keep black labour in the country to exploit it, South Africa chose “self-declared (and unapologetic) apartheid”. Black people would never be equal citizens and would never have the right to vote.

Wishing to appear to be a democracy with a Jewish majority, Israel chose “disguised (and vigorously denied) apartheid”. By expelling over 700,000 Arab residents from what became its territory (their UN-recognised right to return was denied on the racial ground that they were not ethnically Jewish), Israel magically converted what would have been a new country with an Arab majority of around 55 percent into one with a Jewish majority of over 80 percent. As South African scholar Daryl Glaser, observed, “[i]t is difficult to see how achieving a majority by expulsion and flight is morally superior to obtaining one by the simple disenfranchisement of people [in the country]”.  

The majority of the Palestinians living under very harsh conditions in Gaza today were themselves expelled from Israel in 1948 or a later year, or are the children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of expelled Palestinians.

When they gather near the line between Gaza and 1949-67 Israel to discuss a “Great March of Return”, they are proposing to challenge the apartheid system that excluded them from Israel, and that now asserts the right to use force to prevent their return. International human rights law (including judgments of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to expelled persons in Cyprus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) supports their right to return as close as possible to the areas in which their villages were located.

Most Jewish-Israelis consider return unthinkable because it would produce a Palestinian majority in 1949-67 Israel. But why should a Jewish majority created by illegitimate means in 1948 be maintained?

Israel’s apartheid system was extended to the whole of historical Palestine in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Although a genuinely temporary military occupation would justify not granting Israeli citizenship to residents of the West Bank and Gaza (not previously expelled from Israel), Israel’s occupation has lasted over 50 years, compared with 46 years for South Africa’s apartheid government.

It can hardly be called “temporary”, especially given the construction of illegal settlements for over 500,000 Jewish-Israelis in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). As in 1948, Palestinian residents of the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) and Gaza, despite living under Israeli control, are denied Israeli citizenship and the right to vote on racial grounds: they are not ethnically Jewish.

But what about the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the minority who were not expelled in 1948? They have the right to vote, so how can Israel be accused of apartheid? In Apartheid South Africa, there was no equivalent to the Palestinian citizens of Israel. They therefore conveniently serve as Israel’s “democratic figleaf”. But they are second-class citizens in many ways; they were only granted citizenship because the majority of Arab residents were expelled in 1948. Granting Israeli citizenship to a minority of Palestinians does not excuse Israel’s failure to give it to the majority.

South Africa proposed a “multi-state solution”: Ten small, disconnected tribal homelands or bantustans for the black majority, and the majority of the land for the white minority. The world rejected its blatant unfairness.

Similarly, Israel’s de facto version of a “two-state solution” consists of small, disconnected areas of Palestinian “autonomy” (Oslo Areas A and B in the West Bank, plus Gaza), which look very similar to the South African bantustans. Israel’s Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, has proposed that Israel illegally annex the majority of the West Bank (Oslo Area C), as it has illegally annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

His proposal would, in fact, benefit the Palestinian people, by ending the fiction that a just two-state solution is still possible, and by making Israel’s apartheid system more transparent. 

The main difference between South African apartheid and Israeli apartheid is that, because of the Christian world’s guilt about its terrible persecution of Jewish minorities in Europe (culminating in the Holocaust), and its misguided and selfishly “nimby” belief that Palestine (rather than part of a Christian-majority country) should be used to compensate the Jewish people, Israel has got away with its apartheid for longer.

May 15, 2018, marked the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (Catastrophe), the foundation of the state of Israel against the will of the Arab majority in Palestine and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homeland – in other words, 70 years of apartheid.

But more and more people around the world (including Jewish students at universities in the US) are gradually learning the truth about the continuing injustices in Israel-Palestine and the historical events that gave rise to them. This will gradually increase support for the civil society BDS movement, which should eventually persuade governments, especially in Europe and North America, to put real pressure on Israel to end its apartheid system. 

In the absence of a credible proposal from Israel for a just two-state solution, the default position must be a one-state solution as in South Africa: a single, secular, democratic state, with equal citizenship and voting rights for Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians, a strong constitution prohibiting direct or indirect racial or religious discrimination against any individual or group, and a strong constitutional court to enforce it.

If this is the eventual outcome, the unarmed protesters in Gaza, which should be viewed as Israel’s Soweto, will not have died in vain.

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