Why it is crucial to keep a spotlight on Israel’s apartheid

Unlike his predecessors, Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is unabashedly embracing apartheid.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the first weekly cabinet meeting of the new government in Jerusalem, Sunday, June 20, 2021. [Emmanuel Dunand/Pool Photo via AP]

In April this year, Human Rights Watch issued a report, titled “A Threshold Crossed”, condemning Israel for “committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians”.

“Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy,” the leading international NGO flatly stated. “In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

The bluntness of the claims in the 213-page report shocked some, but the debate on whether or not Israel has imposed an apartheid regime over the Palestinians has a long history.

The Apartheid Convention of 1973 defined apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purposes of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”. Since then, dozens of political and religious leaders, rights groups, legal scholars and international institutions used the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. In 2017, for example, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA) conducted an inquiry on “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” and concluded that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole”.

In the face of these accusations, Israel always maintained its innocence, claiming that it is treating Palestinians living under its rule – both in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian Territories – fairly.

It decried efforts to label it as an “apartheid state” by pointing to its own declarations about its institutions’ commitment to equality. And, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Israel’s powerful allies and the wider international community refrained from officially labelling Israel as an apartheid state and censuring it for its racist and discriminatory policies. After the publication of the damning HRW report, for example, a spokesperson for the US State Department simply said: “It is not the view of [the Biden] administration that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid.”

While countless articles, scholarly papers and reports have been written  demonstrating the ways in which Israel has established an apartheid regime over Palestinians over the decades, today there is an urgent need to make the case anew.

Naftali Bennett, a staunch supporter of settlements and annexation of most of the West Bank, has been sworn in as Israel’s new prime minister on June 13. Throughout his election campaign, Bennett has been open about his intention to accelerate Israel’s brutal destruction of Palestinian life and its illegal appropriation of Palestinian lands as prime minister. And now that he is in power, he is using long-existing laws, structures, tactics and strategies to accelerate and expand what can only be defined as a genocidal campaign against Palestinians. Thus, it is more urgent now than ever before to expose Israel’s apartheid policies and to ensure it faces appropriate censure from the international community for blatantly violating international law.

It is hardly difficult to make the case for Israel being an apartheid state.

Israel’s claims of treating Palestinians living under its rule fairly, which have long been used to defend it against accusations of apartheid, have been all but mooted by the Nation-State Bill it passed in July 2018.

The law states that:

  • The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.
  • The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.
  • The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

These statements make it clear that Israel believes only Jewish people have any claim over the lands it currently rules over. This ideology both calls for and legitimises a system wherein, as the 2017 UNESCWA document states, “continued domination over non-Jews in all land exclusively under Israeli control” is perpetuated.

Another obvious component of Israel’s apartheid regime is relentless, unlawful and continuous demolition of Palestinian homes.

House demolitions have been a fundamental part of the Israeli settler-colonial project since its very beginning. Today, Israel regularly denies housing permits to Palestinians, making any shelters they may build for themselves in their homeland illegal. Israeli authorities also routinely bulldoze Palestinian structures, regardless of their legal status under Israeli law, leaving families homeless.

In November 2020, the UN rebuked Israel for carrying out what it said was “the biggest demolition of Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank for a decade”. The demolitions left 73 people, including 41 children, homeless. More recently, in June 2021, the Jerusalem municipality began to destroy 100 Palestinian buildings in the al-Bustan neighbourhood, which is home to more than 1,500 Palestinians, most of them children. The municipality is reportedly planning to build a biblical theme park in place of these buildings. Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, more than 150 residents have recently received eviction notices. Some have been living in these houses since the 1950s. Once they leave, their homes will be given to Jewish settlers.

As Mike Merryman-Lotze, the American Friends Service Committee’s Palestine-Israel programme director, noted in a June 30 blog post, “These demolitions and displacements are but one part of an apartheid system that discriminates against Palestinians living under Israeli control. For decades, the Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli authorities in the West Bank have refused to approve zoning plans for Palestinian areas of Jerusalem and communities in Area C of the West Bank. This refusal makes it impossible for Palestinian residents to obtain building permits, leaving them no choice but to build without permission.”

Indeed, the rapid expansion of Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise is another undeniable proof of its apartheid practices. The expansion of settlements entrench Israel’s colonial project on Palestinian land and foreclose the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

Earlier this month, Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian Territory, called the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank a “war crime” during  a session of the UN Human Rights Council. He said the settlements violate an absolute ban on an occupying power transferring part of its civilian population into an occupied territory, thereby meeting the definition of a war crime under the Rome Statute founding the International Criminal Court (ICC). After branding Israel’s settlements a war crime, Lynk also called on the international community to inflict a “cost” on Israel for its illegal occupation.

In the eyes of many, the 2018 Nation-State Law, house demolitions, evictions, relentless settlement expansion and many other discriminatory, racist and violent practices and policies of the Israeli authorities categorically prove that Israel is, and has always been, an apartheid state.

Despite all this, consecutive Israeli governments enthusiastically denied that Israel is an apartheid state, and even accused anyone attempting to draw parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel of anti-Semitism. But with Bennett in power, Israel will likely not even put much of an effort in fighting these charges or hiding its apartheid practices from the international community.

Indeed, Bennett has always been open about his desire to officially annex occupied Palestinian territories and rid Palestinians of any rights they have in Israel. And unlike his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, who maintained that he believed in “two states for two peoples” while pursuing apartheid policies, he has never been interested in even appearing to support the two-state solution. As Yousef Munayyer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Arab Center, recently argued in an op-ed for the Washington Post, “Bennett unabashedly embraces apartheid, while Netanyahu at least understood the value of pretending otherwise before the international community.”

So what is to be done to counter the violent practices of a state that is now led by a prime minister who is unabashedly embracing apartheid? UN Special Rapporteur Lynk suggested the international community should inflict “a cost” on Israel for its illegal actions. But what could or should that cost be?

Earlier this month, more than 900 international academics and scholars, myself included, signed an open letter urging “their governments to cease immediately their complicity with Israel’s apartheid regime, to join in the effort to call for the dismantling of apartheid structures and their replacement by an egalitarian democratic governance that treats everyone subject to its authority in accordance with their rights and with full respect for their humanity, and to make this transition in a manner sensitive to the right of self-determination enjoyed by both peoples presently inhabiting historic Palestine”.

Although this letter and many others like it are entirely laudable, because they stop short of demanding a boycott of Israel, they leave it unclear exactly what “cost” Israel is going to pay for its apartheid practices.

Countries can only demonstrate their refusal to be complicit in Israel’s crime of apartheid clearly through boycotts. Condemnations and warnings mean little when relations continue as normal.

The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), which drew inspiration from the South African anti-apartheid movement, can thus guide the international community in its efforts to hold Israel to account. Boycotts helped South Africans win their fight against racism, inequality and apartheid, and they can do the same for Palestinians.

Israel is disturbed by, and until now has actively fought against, the accusation of being an apartheid state – and for good reason. The apartheid label, when it sticks, can swiftly reduce a country into a pariah on the international arena, leaving it with no option other than changing its ways. It took a while for the label apartheid to stick to Israel, but the recent global protests against Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories show that the world is finally coming to understand the expanse and brutality of Israel’s apartheid regime.

It is thus high time to once again drew the world’s attention to Israel’s crimes, especially its apartheid regime against the Palestinians. Once the international community, albeit belatedly, acknowledges that Israel is indeed an apartheid state, it can finally award it the same status that it once bestowed upon apartheid South Africa – that of a pariah state.

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