Published in Quadrant magazine, Vol. 65, No. 12, December 2021.
The relentless demonising and delegitimising of Israel continues apace. With so many references in the media, in hard and far-Left publications, on university campuses and in public discourse generally, to Israel’s alleged practice of apartheid, it is timely to evaluate the substance of the claim, assess the origin of the slur, and consider whether there is any merit in the use of the word.
Here is just one example: When Australia’s Federal Opposition and Labor Leader Anthony Albanese spoke in early August 2021 to a meeting of Australia’s Jewish community leaders, hosted by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, he modestly stated his opposition to the Boycotts, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement against Israel, disagreed with calling Israel an apartheid state, and endorsed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. This triggered a furious reaction from the usual quarters. Within three weeks, a petition of over 20,000 signatories was sent to the Australian parliament imploring MPs to denounce Israel as an apartheid state. The apartheid word is meant to sting, belittle, and marginalise the people of the only democracy in the Middle East.
There are at least two possible indictments to consider. First, whether the term legitimately applies to Israel itself and, second, whether it might apply to Israel’s management of the “occupied territories.” In both instances, the charge sheet is not credible.
Let’s examine Israel proper, first.
Israel is a vivacious and very young democracy. It emerged from the Holocaust and an attempt by neighbouring states to strangle it at birth in 1948. Nearly half of its population are Jews and their descendants expelled from Arab and Middle Eastern lands after 1948.
Within Israel, around 20% of the population is Arab, with full rights as citizens of Israel, including equal voting rights. Arab citizens have always served in Israel’s parliaments and as judges in its courts, including the Supreme Court. The key difference being that they are exempt from conscripted service in the Israel Defence Force (IDF), though many opt to volunteer.
There is nothing in Israel or in the West Bank akin to the three pillars of South African apartheid: The Race Classification Act, which classified and physically separated the population according to colour – whites and so-called non-whites, the latter grouping comprising, in “descending” order, Asians, so-called Coloureds (people of mixed race) and Blacks; The Mixed Marriages Act, which prohibited marriage and sexual relations between the race classifications; and The Group Areas Act (the Pass Law). There are no race-based restrictions on voting in Israel like there were in South Africa.
Within Israel, there are sometimes tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish communities, but there are no legal restrictions of movement, opportunity, or promise. It has taken decades for the Israeli-Arab population to find its “feet” and there is a long way to go. In this context, there is the prominent success of the Israeli-Arab sector in Israel’s health system.
A high percentage of Israeli pharmacists are Arab. Arabs are CEOs of major hospitals, heads of departments in Israeli hospitals, and the list goes on. Israel’s Arabs are punching way above their percentage of the overall population in the health sector. Indeed, hospital workers represent an island of coexistence. The rest of Israeli society can learn from them.
In May this year, the Rambam Medical Centre, Haifa, promoted a social media campaign featuring Arab and Jewish personnel holding “shalom-salam” signs. In the same month, in The Jerusalem Post, Prof. Jonathan Halevy observed that at the Shaare Zedek Medical Centre, Jerusalem, between 20% and 25% of the 5,000 employees are Arab, about the same mix as the Arab patients. The head of the coronavirus unit at the hospital is an Arab doctor; the head of nursing is an Orthodox Jewish woman. Several Israeli videos lauding Arab doctors and nurses as heroes of the coronavirus crisis went viral in 2021.
Perhaps one subtle, societal impact was the acceptance of the Islamist Israeli Arab political party Ra’am as part of the new governing coalition in Israel. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, is a dentist trained at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
As with other democracies which need to contend with their own fair share of discrimination, Israel is making, and continues to make, significant progress in the areas of social equity and social justice. The health sector is a spirited example of that.
Apartheid Labelling Has History
Before turning to the situation in the “occupied territories”, it pays to understand the etymology of the claim that Israel is an apartheid nation.
Apartheid is an Afrikaans word which can be translated as “apart-hood” or “separateness”, which in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s was government-mandated, separate development of the different racial groups in South Africa.
But it was more than just separation of the races. As already noted, South Africa’s apartheid laws forced the different groups to live and develop separately. Inter-marriage and social integration between racial groups was illicit. Most of the population were vilely discriminated against by the white minority.
Some critics of Israel say that the Hebrew word hafrada, which literally means “separation”, which is sometimes deployed in Israel to describe the distinct Palestinian and Israeli societies, clinches their argument. But it would be ridiculous to argue this, as is demonstrated in the discussion on the West Bank, below.
So why is Israel so often libelled in this way? There is history. The settler colonialist slur is one aspect. In addition to the claim of apartheid, Israel is routinely labelled by its harshest critics as a settler colonialist enterprise. In 1969, New Left Notes, the journal of Students for a Democratic Society, charged that “Israeli ‘socialism’ was founded on the complete relocation of thousands of people of colour”. Never mind that Arabs are Semites, as “white” as Jews. The charge here seeks to further link white European Jewry with the rulers of apartheid era South Africa.
Additionally, it is noteworthy that the first draft of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid was submitted by the Soviet Union and Guinea in 1971 as a tactic to win support among non-aligned states by defining apartheid so broadly as to apply to many western states. Consequently, most western countries – including Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States – never signed or ratified the Convention. (Interestingly, the then Soviet Union’s lording it over the peoples of its empire never struck its drafters as problematical.)
Attempts to tie the Convention to the UN “Zionism is Racism” declaration in 1975 (rescinded by the General Assembly in 1991) highlights what happens when human rights debates are corrupted by base political agendas. The NGO Forum of the 2001 UN Durban conference picked up the theme in an action plan to promote the “complete isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.” The NGO Forum was thoroughly discredited by overt displays of Jew-hatred. Mary Robinson, herself a frequent critic of Israel who was then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said of the whole Durban conference that “there was horrible antisemitism present — particularly in some of the NGO discussions. A number of people said they’ve never been so hurt or so harassed or been so blatantly faced with antisemitism.” (Interview on BBC Radio, 21 November 2002.)
Current and previous Secretaries-General of the UN – Antonio Guterres, Ban Ki-Moon, Kofi Anan – have criticised the UN General Assembly for its “disproportionate focus” on Israel, or its tendency to “single out” Israel, and to engage in “a modern form of antisemitism”. Despite this, the UN General Assembly continues to exhibit outrageous bias. Since 2015, the Geneva-based UN Watch records that 112 resolutions condemning Israel were passed, compared to 12 on Russia, 8 on Syria, 7 on the United States, 6 on Korea, 5 on Iran, 4 on Myanmar, and zero for each of China, Venezuela, Pakistan, Libya, and Cuba.
The “Occupied” Territories
Here is a long story short. But without this background, it is impossible to assess the claim and counter claims about Israel and the apartheid accusation.
In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of the Arab nations which had mobilised with the aim, openly declared by Arab leaders, of wiping Israel off the map. In defeating the aggression against it, Israel captured the territory west of the River Jordan, previously under Jordanian rule. It has remained in control there pending a final peace agreement that will guarantee that the West Bank will never again be used as a base for launching attacks against Israel.
On 13 September 1993, the Oslo 1 Accords were signed by Israel and the PLO in Washington, with the imprimatur of US President Clinton. This envisaged the peaceful transition to self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (previously under Egyptian rule), though numerous issues were highlighted for further negotiation.
The Preamble stated that
The Government of the State of Israel and the PLO team (in the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the Middle East Peace Conference) (the “Palestinian Delegation”), representing the Palestinian people, agree that it is time to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights, and strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed political process.
Article XIII (2) stated that: “In redeploying its military forces, Israel will be guided by the principle that its military forces should be redeployed outside populated areas.”
Oslo created self-governing bodies, including the Palestinian National Assembly and the election of a President. Authority was transferred to the Palestinians in education and culture, health, social welfare, direct taxation, and tourism. The Palestinian side also created the Palestinian police force. In 1994, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) and his entourage relocated from Tunis to Ramallah.
As part of the Oslo peace process, which had full international endorsement, subsequent agreements were made. The most significant of those was the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, known as Oslo 2, signed in September 1995.
That Agreement expanded Palestinian self-government to the remaining Palestinian towns and many of the villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It divided the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into three zones – A, B, and C – which served as the basis for the redeployment of Israeli forces.
Approximately three million Palestinians live in the West Bank (Areas A, B, and C combined), over 90% of whom live in Areas A and B. Some 180,000-250,000 Palestinians live in Area C. Under the Accords, Israel retained responsibility for the West Bank against external threats, with other responsibilities shared between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA):
Area A, approximately 18% of the West Bank, includes the major Palestinian cities and towns, such as Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Bethlehem, as well as the Jericho Area. In accordance with the 1997 Hebron Protocol, Area A also includes 80% of the City of Hebron. In Area A, the PA has full responsibility for internal security, public order, and all civil affairs. Area A is controlled exclusively by the PA.
Area B, approximately 22% of the West Bank, covers all the other heavily-populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank – around 450 towns, villages, refugee camps and hamlets. In Area B, the PA controls all Palestinian public order and civil affairs issues. In coordination with the PA, Israel controls internal security issues in Area B.
Area C, all West Bank territory not allocated as Areas A or B, consists about 60% of the West Bank, and is relatively thinly populated. It includes all the Jewish settlements (some 450,000 people who live mostly near the pre-1967 armistice line), Israel Defence Forces (IDF) camps and military installations, areas of security importance, and other non-inhabited areas. In Area C, Israel controls all internal security and public order issues, as well as civil affairs issues, except that the PA controls all civil affairs issues for the Palestinians that reside in Area C, other than those related to management of land.
For many reasons, the hopes of Oslo were not fulfilled. Successive failures, between the Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate a settlement, notably between the Palestinian Authority and the last Israeli Labour Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000, the violent unleashing of the Palestinian Intifada (an Arabic word for “shaking off”) from September 2000 to late 2005, which involved a Palestinian campaign of suicide bombings and various terrorist acts, the failure of the Palestinian leadership to respond to the detailed peace plan offered by Kadima’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, together with the constant rocket fire from Gaza from where Israel had unilaterally withdrawn in 2005, Hamas’s coup against PLO rule and seizure of executive power in 2007, hardened Israeli sentiment in favour of greater security. Palestinian rejectionism pulverised the Israeli Left’s standing and drove the Israeli electorate to the right. In response to Palestinian rejectionism and violence, the Israeli West Bank barrier, the 708km security fence separating Israel and the Palestinian lands, went up to protect Israeli citizens.
Of course, it is problematic to have military rule over a civilian population. In the heat and tension sometimes the IDF units breach their own standards. But there are checks and balances, and the rule of law applies. As outlined here, the situation is complicated, and must be considered with recognition of the security dilemmas Israel faces. By striking a rocket launcher deliberately placed by Hamas in a built-up area in Gaza, Israel risks causing unintended civilian casualties among Palestinians. By not striking the rocket launcher, Israel risks Hamas succeeding in its openly intended aim of causing civilian casualties among Israelis.
Human Rights and NGO Criticism
Israel has striven to ensure that the Palestinians can govern themselves. Yet this year, several reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Israeli Human Rights group, B’Tselem, revived the apartheid line.
B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, generally acts with integrity in reporting facts on the ground. Even so, its conclusions are debatable and contested by other NGOs in Israel. In highlighting what it judges to be breaches of rights in the territories, by shining a torch on abusers and abuses, it provides an invaluable service, a marker of Israel’s high standards. Interestingly, however, the organisation does not have a legal department. It is legitimate to question how such an organisation can issue reports drawing definitive legal conclusions, including conclusions of criminal guilt, without a dedicated legal team.
On the other hand, Human Rights Watch (HRW) will never live down the searing criticism levelled in 2009 by its legendary founder, Robert Bernstein, when he announced he was leaving the organisation he created because of his disappointment with its obsessive focus on Israel, its issuing of “reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state”, its paucity of coverage of closed dictatorships around the world, and its continued equation of human rights violations by dictatorships with those of democratic and free countries. (Robert Bernstein, ‘Rights Watchdog: Lost in the Mideast’, New York Times, 19 October 2009). “Nowhere is this more evident than in its work in the Middle East”, wrote Bernstein. “The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.”
Turning to its recent report, HRW does not claim that Israel is an “apartheid state” but confines itself to accusing Israel of carrying out “apartheid policies” in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. This is toying with words. The report admits that “no court has to date heard a case involving the crime of apartheid”, and that its use of that word, although purportedly derived from the Apartheid Convention and Rome Statute, is founded on its own interpretation.
HRW and its supporters acknowledge that the situation in the West Bank is very different to the situation that prevailed in apartheid South Africa. HRW, however, cannot resist using the A word.
One contrast between South Africa and Israel/Palestine is that the black population in the former wanted equal rights and full citizenship within that country. In contrast, the Palestinian national movement is not demanding to be part of Israel. They want an independent state apart from Israel, or in the place of Israel.
Consider this: The West Bank was thrice used as a base from which Jordan launched a full-scale military attack against Israel (in 1948, 1967, and 1973), and it was also used for decades by armed Palestinian groups for launching terrorist operations inside Israel. Those actions were accompanied by public statements by Palestinian leaders – consistent with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Charter and the (never rescinded) Hamas Charter vowing to destroy Israel by force. The PLO Charter formally stands unamended in rejecting Israel’s right to exist. Although the PLO’s legislative body, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), voted twice in the 1990s to remove these rejectionist clauses from the Charter, this was never put into effect. The Charter has never been redrawn.
Before the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987, Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank moved freely between the two areas. The security situation then dramatically deteriorated.
HRW recognises, albeit grudgingly, that Israel has legitimate security concerns, and thus fails to dispel the doubt that those concerns are the real intention behind the measures that HRW criticises and are not designed to dominate and oppress.
HRW cites statements by various Israeli politicians in aid of its contention that demographics, rather than defence, drive Israeli policy, as if the two can neatly be separated.
A decade ago, Judge Richard Goldstone, a veteran of South African apartheid, a jurist sometimes critical of Israeli policies and actions, declared that in Israel “nothing comes close” to apartheid. Even in the West Bank “there is no intent to maintain ‘an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.’ This is a critical distinction, even if Israel acts oppressively toward Palestinians there. South Africa’s enforced racial separation was intended to permanently benefit the white minority, to the detriment of other races. By contrast, Israel has agreed in concept to the existence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank and is calling for the Palestinians to negotiate the parameters.” (Richard J. Goldstone, ‘Israel and the Apartheid Slander’, New York Times, 31 October 2011.)
In this author’s opinion, a two-state solution is needed. If Israel’s offers had been accepted in 2000, 2001 or 2008, after modest land swaps (no more than 6.5% of the area of the West Bank in exchange for an equivalent area of Israel’s pre-1967 territory), the Palestinian State would have had a total area equal to 100% of the pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza, and a capital in the predominantly Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. The two-state solution is far from dead, and such an outcome remains physically and logistically achievable. The obstacles are political.
It is also worth reflecting, however, that there are so many paradoxes where it seems claim and its opposite are true. In the copious literature, the philosopher Micah Goodman’s book Catch ’67 (Yale, 2018) – an allusion to the consequences of the 1967 war – is one of the more arrestingly fresh perspectives. He reveals that Israelis see the West Bank as a potential existential threat. Palestinians feel the humiliation of a people without a state. Goodman has numerous suggestions about transforming a catastrophic challenge to a chronic one, but they need not detain us. Goodman highlights that most Israelis would quit the West Bank and end military control over the lives of millions of Palestinians to ensure Israel’s future as an internationally accepted state. Yet a majority also think it is not safe to do so yet. Intense rocket volleys against Israel from Gaza strengthen the Israel’s security arguments for remaining in the West Bank and preventing the emergence of a Greater Hamastan.
A single democratic state, in which Palestinians and Israeli Jews would forge a new society and a shared national identity and political community, is a utopian fantasy. Jews and Palestinians are distinct, with different languages, cultures, and religions, each with a deep sense of its own identity and history. Living together in roughly equal numbers with a common sense of allegiance to a single state after 100 years of clutching at each other’s throats is simply not attainable, especially not in the Middle East, where the prevailing paradigm between national and religious communities is one of domination and submission. Any attempt at such a “solution” would rapidly descend into civil war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. These two nations do not need a forced marriage. They need a divorce, preferably via an amicable settlement.
The Palestinian chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” means that the whole territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would be “Palestine” and therefore there would be no Israel. The chanters are ominously silent about what that implies about the future (or lack of one) for Israel’s Jewish citizens. Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwari, a frequent commentator on the BBC, recently gave the game away when he said In August (in Arabic) on Lebanese TV:
Israel today is in a state of confusion, in a state of panic. They know very well that what happened in Kabul Airport will repeat itself at Ben Gurion Airport. But Ben Gurion Airport will be closed, there will be no planes in it… Israelis should listen to the advice of [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah and start learning how to swim, because their only option will be Cyprus, their only option will be the Mediterranean Sea.
In debates on Israel/Palestine, depressingly predictable ‘punch and judy’ shows of denunciation often go with fitting everything into a pre-determined framework with little or no room for nuance.
Commentary rapidly proceeds at autobahn speed via cliché, stridency, and finger pointing. There is not enough slowing down to ponder the arguments and intricacies of opposing viewpoints. This applies to the slur that Israel is an apartheid state.
It is a nonsense to stretch the meaning of apartheid to any country where long-standing, systemic racism against a dominated group once existed, as if history is destiny. Accordingly, the Israel hating, apartheid hurling critics see Australia in its failures in the treatment of First Nations people, the US, Canada, and NZ, the UK (South Asian immigrants), China (Tibet and Uyghurs), Turkey (Kurds and Armenians) and so on as apartheid nations. Apartheid should not be pressed to describe anything and everything. The ascription of an over-stretched meaning to apartheid effectively dilutes its evil essence.
Finally, the challenge is greatest when dealing with absolutists. Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass offers wisdom. At one point, Humpty Dumpty plays with the word ‘impenetrability’, explaining to Alice: “When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.” As it is with the murkily applied word apartheid to Israel. It should never be an arbitrary decision, one word over another. It is always whether the word chosen is truthful or is closest to truth, whether denoting a state in this way in this instance assists understanding and discussion. Strained credibility is one sign that language matters.
This article was written in July 2021.
When published, I this note appeared with the article: Michael Easson stands behind the website www.newmiddleeast.com.au .