B’Tselem’s ‘bombshell’ apartheid report: Stating the obvious

The Israeli NGO’s acknowledgement of Israel’s apartheid is just a small step in the right direction.

Palestinians gather near Anata village of Jerusalem to stage a protest against the wall built on a road to separate the vehicles with Israeli license plates and Palestinian license plates in West Bank
Palestinians gather near Anata village of Jerusalem to stage a protest against the wall built on a road to separate the vehicles with Israeli licence plates and Palestinian licence plates in West Bank on January 23, 2019 [File: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

Israel is an apartheid state. This obvious fact, of which millions of Palestinians living under Israeli rule have been painfully aware for decades, finally made headlines in the West last month thanks to a report by Israel’s leading human rights organisation, B’Tselem.

The report, titled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”, got the Western world talking about the real nature of the so-called “Israeli democracy” and paved the way for the many parallels between modern-day Israel and apartheid South Africa to be discussed in the mainstream.

Neither Edward Said nor Archbishop Desmond Tutu was able to do that. The UN special rapporteurs on the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, such as Richard Falk and John Dugard, were not able to do that either. To be taken seriously, and find itself a place in the pages of Western newspapers, the statement that “Israel is an apartheid state” had to come from Israeli Jews themselves.

Israel’s apartheid has always been an open secret

The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crimes of Apartheid (ICSPCA), Article 2, Part 3, defines apartheid as:

“Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, the right to form recognized trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

This definition, in its entirety, clearly applies not only to the situation of Palestinian people residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – who are fully and permanently subject to Israel’s authority but do not hold any citizenship rights – but also that of those living in so-called “Israeli proper”.

Israel defines itself as a “Jewish state”. All Jews, regardless of where they were born, can assume Israeli citizenship and participate fully in Israel’s democracy. The land’s Indigenous inhabitants, the Palestinians, however, are openly denied most basic rights and freedoms in Israel. While some Palestinians do hold Israeli citizenship, even they are not considered equal to their Jewish compatriots in the eyes of the state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself accepted this fact a few years ago, stating “Israel is not a state of all its citizens … [it] is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it”.

ICSPCA, Article 2, Part 4, meanwhile, makes it crystal clear that the term “crime of apartheid” includes “[a]ny measures including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups … [and] the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof”.

It is, of course, impossible to deny that the Israeli regime is forcing Palestinians to live in “separate reserves and ghettos”. The Israeli state not only took Palestinian lands and gave them to Israeli Jews, but it also banned us from freely moving within our own homeland.

Despite all this, until recently, comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa were completely taboo – anyone who dared to talk about “the Israeli apartheid” was swiftly accused of being an anti-Semite and silenced. The guilt white Europeans felt about the Holocaust, during which nearly six million innocent Jews were slaughtered by white, European racists, kept the Israeli regime safe from any criticism coming from the Palestinians and their allies.

Now that some Israeli Jews themselves appear to openly accept that their state has enacted a regime of Jewish supremacy over all the territories it controls, there is hope that the Israeli apartheid can one day be fully exposed and demolished.

An ‘apartheid’ framed as a ‘conflict’

I am a naturalised South African citizen of Palestinian origin. I was born and raised in Palestine, but spent more than five years in Johannesburg studying towards a PhD.

As a result, I experienced life under two different apartheids. While one of these apartheid regimes is now lying at the bottom of the dustbin of history, sadly, the other is still thriving.

These two apartheid regimes had different fates not because they were materially different, but because the international community chose to denounce one and support the other.

Apartheid South Africa considered itself a democracy. Its institutions were indeed somewhat democratic, but only for the white citizens of the country. The international community eventually denounced this “white democracy” as illegitimate, and put its support behind Black South Africans working to build a state under which all of the country’s citizens enjoy equal rights and freedoms.

Just like apartheid South Africa, Israel considers itself a democracy. Its institutions are democratic, but only for the Jewish citizens of the country.

Unlike apartheid South Africa, however, Israel’s so-called “democracy” is still accepted as legitimate by an overwhelming majority in the international community thanks to the efforts of the Israeli state and its powerful allies in the West.

The same forces that are trying to convince the world that Israel is indeed a “democracy” are also working to whitewash Israel’s apartheid regime in Palestine by framing it as a “conflict” between two equal sides. Instead of calling a spade a spade, and Israel an apartheid regime, they talk about the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

Can anyone argue that in apartheid South Africa there were two equal parties, namely white and Black, with equal claims to the land and equal responsibility for the then-status quo?

No doubt, this would be a very bizarre and inaccurate interpretation of South African history. This is why we find it unacceptable, and infuriating, when our reality under Israeli apartheid is interpreted and framed in this way.

Israel and its supporters also try to whitewash the Israeli apartheid by focusing on the promise of a “two-state solution”. The two-state solution, as presented by the Israeli state and its Western allies, however, is nothing but an attempt to create “Bantustans” for the Palestinian people.

The South African Apartheid regime created several “Bantustans” to allegedly give Black citizens of the country a homeland of their own. In practice, however, Bantustans were regions that lack any real legitimacy or sovereignty, consisting of several unconnected enclaves. The “Palestinian state” imagined by Israel, which would similarly consist of several unconnected enclaves lacking any real sovereignty, therefore, would have no more legitimacy than South Africa’s racist and meaningless Bantustans.

The South Africans fighting against apartheid, and their allies across the world, had one goal: ending the racist system of apartheid for good. They made it clear that they would not accept any apartheid practices, including Bantustans, to survive. The system had to be dismantled in its entirety.

Today, us Palestinians are fighting against a similar apartheid regime. Like South African anti-apartheid activists, we are not willing to accept anything less than the complete dismantling of the racist system imposed on us.

B’tselem’s acknowledgement that Israel is indeed an apartheid state is a welcome development – we cannot defeat Israel’s regime of Jewish supremacy if the world continues to ignore its very existence.

However, merely accepting the true nature of Israel is not enough. It is time to hold the Israeli regime to account for its crime of apartheid, just like its ideological twin in South Africa was held to account many years ago.

The Palestinian civil society has long been calling for Israel to be sanctioned until it complies with international law and starts treating all human beings living under its rule equally. If B’tselem really wants to expose Israel’s crimes and hold it to account for its unacceptable and racist treatment of the Palestinians, its next step should be endorsing that call.

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