Annexation or Apartheid: (some) Israelis search for a word for their reality

February 28, 2013
Sarah Benton

Oren Yiftachel, Professor of Geography and Urban Studies and author of many books on the politics of urban planning

Is Israeli apartheid possible?

By Oren Yiftachel
February 28, 2013

On Wednesday 20th of February, for what appears to be the first time in Israel’s history, a special conference was dedicated to the question “Is Israeli Apartheid possible?”

The event was staged by a new NGO titled “The Association for the struggle against racism and apartheid in Israel” and held at the well-known Van Leer institute in Jerusalem.

While a few (very few) Israeli scholars, such as the undersigned, have already written on Israeli apartheid and colonial order for nearly two decades, this critical discourse is only finally entering parts of the mainstream. This is due to the rapid rise in settler population; the continuing denial of Palestinian rights, and the lack of progress in the ‘peace process’.

At the same time, there exists an on-going chatter in Israeli colonialist circles about unilateral annexation of parts of the West bank. At the same time, several of the practices of ethnocratic control have been ‘creeping’ back inside the Green Line, deepening the discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens. All these make the apartheid order of ‘separate and unequal’ ever more evident.

Since its announcement a week prior to the event, the conference has been attacked from both ends of the political spectrum. It was slammed by right wingers and settlers, calling its organizers traitors. As noted by a rightwing speaker in a radio interview ” the democratic right of freedom of speech, held high by Israel, is abused again by those interested in destroying the Jewish state” . On the other hand, the conference was also attacked by far left and Palestinian organizations for the lack of Palestinian voices on the panels. This criticism is shared by this writer, and hopefully will be – it must be — corrected in future events.

Although widely advertised, most Israeli media (except Ha’aretz) ignored the event, probably for fear of being branded too critical. However, the event was filmed and will be posted to YouTube. It is also noteworthy that the hall was full showing that some genuine interest exists in the sliding of the Israeli polity into an apartheid age.

Below is a quick summary of the lectures.

Prof. Amiram Goldblum of the Hebrew University, introduced the new NGO – “The Association for the struggle against racism and apartheid in Israel” (not fully registered yet), and its planned activities, focusing on documenting attitudes and policies. He explained the mainly technical reasons for the (regrettable) lack of Palestinians on the panel, and predicted that many more such events will be staged in the near future.

    Lawyer Michael Sfard reflected on his own changing approach to the question, based on the burgeoning file in his office titled – ‘apartheid?’ At this point in time he concluded the West Bank is indeed closest to the apartheid definition, but not Israel Proper or Gaza. Sfard noted that people may find some variations between definitions of apartheid in relevant legal documents, mainly in international law, but this should not deter those using the apartheid definition because there is enough evidence [to justify it] by now.

He likened the Israeli official approach, which uses the dry letter of the law to the (in)famous ‘acquittal’ of a person in southern USA once charged with lynching. The ridiculous judgment noted that in a ‘proper’ lynch the victim is hanged; in the case at hand, he was ‘only’ beaten to death. Legal acrobatics will not save the Israeli government from being charged with exercising apartheid, he claimed.                    

      Prof. Menachem Klein, Political Science, Bar-Ilan University, focused on Jerusalem, [whose city council] has used the most obvious discriminatory policies towards the Palestinians over the last four decades. On the face of it, Klein claimed, one may look at Jerusalem as an apartheid city. However, the opening which exists for Palestinian Jerusalemites to become citizens, even if the Israeli regime is illegal in East Jerusalem, makes the charge of apartheid questionable. In addition, ‘race’ is not the appropriate category to use in Jerusalem, and people should focus on ethnic discrimination, with Jerusalem as the heart of the conflict.

      Gideon Levy, Ha’aretz journalist, was adamant that Israel has already built an apartheid regime, “at least” in the occupied territories. “Apartheid – what else?” he titled his talk, and brought many examples. Levy emphasized the dispossession that typifies apartheid, the ‘security reflex’ that would justify it, and the associated moral bankruptcy.

         Prof. Frances Radayy, Faculty of Law, Hebrew University, gave a systematic overview of the three key international conventions according to which the apartheid situation is to be assessed– the anti-racism convention (1965) and CERD [the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a UNCHR monitoring body], the apartheid convention (1973; and the Rome Statutes (1998) with the associated ICC work in recent years.

She explained how it has become harder to ‘qualify’ for the apartheid status with the development of international law. Hence, it is possible to classify the West Bank as apartheid under the first two documents, but not the third. It may all come down to the letter E – as in the apartheid convention the situation entails ‘inhuman’ acts, but in the Rome convention it was ‘upgraded’ to ‘inhumanE’, which is more severe.

At the end, the key factor will be the usefulness of fighting the illegal occupation of the West Bank occupation and the siege of Gaza. She was not sure an apartheid classification and discourse will help because of its emotive nature. For example, she noted, the recent fact- finding mission on Israeli settlements of the UN Human Rights council did not use the apartheid term to describe the situation in the West Bank, but did (for the first time) recommend the use of  ‘sharper’ legal tools, such as appealing to the International Criminal Court which treats settlements as war crime.

Prof. Oren Yiftachel, Geography, Ben-Gurion University – outlined the nature of ‘creeping apartheid’ which is the most appropriate description of the political-geographic order prevailing between Jordan and Sea. This is a process, which attempts to reconcile the overall ethnocratic goals of the Israeli regime, with different arrangements in different regions, while giving credit to the classification of Israel as ‘democratic’. The order is not declared, yet for decades has institutionalized a system of ‘separate and unequal’ with four types of unequal citizenships – Jewish, Palestinian in Israel, Palestinian in the Occupied Territories, and recently ‘foreign’.

Yiftachel highlighted the role of settlements and land policy and the tendency of colonial regimes to transform into apartheid-like governments ‘at the end of the frontier’. It’s time to stop using the word ‘occupation’ which describes a temporary military order and adopt terms such as ‘colonialism’ or ‘apartheid’, which describe better Israel’s attempt to create a permanent, and deeply unequal, civil and political order. These are illegal, immoral and criminal regimes that should be resisted by everyone residing in Israel/Palestine. For Jewish self-determination to be sustainable it must never depend on subjecting the Palestinians. He used comparative cases from Northern Ireland, USA, ‘greater’ Serbia, Sri Lanka and Sudan, and showed how apartheid was in each of them a temporary and conflict-riddled stage, now evident in Israel/Palestine.

          Dr. Alon Liel previously of the Israeli Foreign Service was most open and direct, talking about ‘the apartheid cliff’ Israel is facing. He was reflecting on his own position which has changed radically since being part of the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs. One cannot hide the shame, he claimed, and we should call on Obama not to visit Israel/Palestine unless he is putting his weight behind the fight against apartheid (standing ovation).


      Prof. Gideon Shimoni, History Dept. Hebrew University, whose talk was cut short, made a strong appeal not to use the apartheid term. He relied on his South African experience and knowing apartheid ‘intimately’. What is happening here, he claimed, is indeed objectionable, but is far from the racist regime which controlled every part of life in South Africa according to biological criteria. This is missing in Israel-Palestine. He claimed that the apartheid argument is first and foremost an attempt to delegitimize Israel’s existence and should hence be resisted (ovation and heckles).

Overall, a good start for an Israeli debate, highlighting a range of positions, all opposing the occupation and treatment of the Palestinians, yet, divided on the question and usefulness of describing the current situation as apartheid. The majority, it appears, supports the apartheid classification, not only as a relatively accurate description, but also as a platform for mobilization and a moral condemnation on the longest military occupation and civil colonization in the contemporary world.

Oren Yiftachel is Professor of Geography and Urban Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Amonst the books he has written are Israelis In Conflict: Hegemonies, Identities, And Challenges; Planning As Control: Policy And Resistance In A Deeply Divided Society, Planning a Mixed Region in Israel: The Political Geography of Arab-Jewish Relations in the Galilee; Ethnic Frontiers And Peripheries: Landscapes Of Development And Inequality In Israel; The Power Of Planning: Spaces Of Control And Transformation;

by Oren Yiftachel (Editor), Adriana Kemp
0.00 avg rating — 0 ratings — published 2004
Want to Read

Rate this book
Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine
0.00 a

A night of apartheid

A succession of speakers at a three-hour conference in Jerusalem broadly agree that the ‘A word’ describes the status quo; the one dissenting panelist gets seven minutes

By Raphael Ahren, Times of Israel
February 21, 2013

There are those on the far-right who don’t believe — or aren’t interested — in a peace agreement with the Palestinians and instead want Israel to annex parts or all of the West Bank. And there are those on the far-left who fear that the failure to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank will lead — or according to some, has already led — to Israel becoming an apartheid state.

The former group appears to have the momentum: many MKs of the ruling Likud party have come out publicly in favor of annexation; the far-right Jewish Home party, which ran on a platform calling for partial annexation, garnered 12 Knesset seats, quadrupling in size. Still, the right-wing bloc in the new Knesset is smaller than it was in the old one.

The “3rd Conference for the Application of Israeli Sovereignty over Judea and Samaria” — the politically correct term for annexation — last month drew more than a thousand people to a Jerusalem hall, where senior Likud MKs, including a minister, proposed a one-state solution and discussed the best way to implement it. “I believe that this discourse, which began on the right and is gradually spilling over to broad sectors of the Israeli public, will ultimately filter down and make a difference and then what looks like a dream today will ultimately become a political reality on the ground,” then-coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) said at the conference.

In Jerusalem on Wednesday night, the opposite mindset held sway. And their gathering underlined that, in light of the annexationists’ growing confidence, those opposed to it are increasingly ready to use terminology they might previously have resisted, and declare that what’s going on between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River will bring, or already has brought, an Israeli version of apartheid.

Wednesday’s event was organized by a group of left-wingers who are currently forming a new nonprofit called “For the struggle against racism and apartheid tendencies in Israel.” The event, entitled “Is there Israeli Apartheid?” took place in a much smaller venue — the Van Leer Institute, near the President’s Residence in Jerusalem — than last month’s annexation conference. But the hall’s 250 seats were not enough to hold all comers; some people had to stand throughout.

Naturally, the participants of the two conferences could not have been more different. Most people who attended January’s annexation conference were Orthodox; many were English-speaking immigrants. At Tuesday’s apartheid event, hardly any skullcaps were seen and almost no English could be heard. There were no politicians (not even a backbencher from Meretz, Hadash or any Arab party), and leaflets from Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch) were handed out, rather than flyers of the Kahanist Otzma Leyisrael party (which failed to win seats in the January 22 elections).

Speaker after speaker, for about three hours, condemned Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, without hesitating to throw around the A-word — until shortly before the event ended, when a sole dissenting panelist was given the platform… and seven minutes to make his points.

‘What else can you call it but apartheid?’
“I am not used to addressing Jerusalemites. I’m not even used to addressing Israelis — they don’t invite me,” joked Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, one of the panelists, when he got up to speak.

Levy is the journalist behind a controversial article about a controversial survey that ostensibly showed that Jewish Israelis would support Israel becoming an apartheid state or think they already live in one. (The survey was itself commissioned by Peace Now board member Amiram Goldblum, who introduced Wednesday’s event.) And so it wasn’t hard to guess how Levy would answer the question the conference title asked.

“What else could we call what’s happening here?” he asked. He went on to talk about Hebron (where a heavily guarded Jewish community exists within a predominantly Palestinian area), the long lines of Palestinians at Israeli army checkpoints, and “systematic discrimination” in general.

In the early days after the 1967 Six-Day War, people liked to speak about “liberated territories,” and the word “occupation” was taboo, much like the A-word is taboo today, Levy said. “Even the way this conference is titled is very cautious.”

The main problem with Israeli society is that people feel like they’re superior, that they are allowed to do whatever they want, and that, somehow, “Palestinians aren’t really people like us,” Levy alleged. “They once asked [Arab MK] Ahmad Tibi: Decide already, are you a doctor or are you a Palestinian?”

Of course there are more brutal occupations that the Israeli version, he allowed. “But I don’t know any other occupation where the occupier thinks he’s the victim, where he thinks he’s the only victim.”

Someone in the audience raised his hand, saying that Levy was preaching to the choir; the relevant question was what we, the citizens, can do to change the situation. Should we be supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement?

“I don’t boycott Israel myself, so I cannot ask others to do so,” Levy replied. He added, however, that “as long as Israel doesn’t pay a price for the occupation, nothing is going to change.” Those concerned with the Palestinians’ plight are best advised to return the topic to the top of the national agenda, he said.

Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer working for various leftwing organizations, started his presentation by saying that he doesn’t use words lightly, and that he used to object to the application of the A-word to the situation in Israel.

“Not all discrimination is apartheid, just like not all murders, or even massacres, are genocide. Let’s reserve these terms for the really drastic phenomena,” he said. But over time, doubt crept in and he opened a folder under the name “Apartheid?” in which he would collect articles and emails about incidents that could fit into that category.

He then explained how the legal situation in the West Bank effectively achieved “almost complete separation” between Israelis and Palestinians.

Modern law is territorial, he said, which means that anyone can smoke marijuana in Holland, because it is legal there, regardless of what citizenship a person holds. But since Israel never applied Israeli law to the West Bank, the status quo there is one in which the law is applied not according to territory but to nationality. An Israeli and a Palestinian could commit the same crime in the same place in the West Bank; the Israeli would be subject to Israeli law (with a certain legal protection mechanism), while the Palestinian would be subject to a military court, according to Sfard.

“I imagine you can guess that over the years the symbol on my folder changed from a question mark to an exclamation symbol,” he said.

Sfard did mention, in passing, that Israel of course has security concerns, knowing that this question could come up even with this choir of the ostensibly converted. But actually, the topic hardly came up. One person asked whether the government isn’t justified in seeking to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley for security reasons, but the panel seemed to mock the notion.

“I’m not sure whether this question is serious or ironic,” Gideon Levy said. When the questioner made plain he truly wanted an answer, Levy told him that Israel is not alone on the planet and that, regardless of whether the threats are imagined or real, Israel didn’t have the moral right to decide what to do with territory that belongs to others.

The next speaker, Menachem Klein, a senior lecturer in Bar-Ilan University’s political science department and a B’Tselem board member, focused his remarks on the situation in East Jerusalem. What happened there could not just be described using the A-word; it was, rather, “ethno-apartheid.”

Hebrew University professor emeritus Frances Raday tried to answer the conference’s question by looking at how international law (such as the United Nations’ 1973 Apartheid Convention) defines the A-word. She also slammed Israel for refusing to cooperate with a recent UN Human Rights Council probe into the settlements, despite acknowledging that the body is obsessed with Israel.

“Not one country in the world thinks settlements are legal,” said Raday, who directs the Concord Research Center for Integration of International Law in Israel. “This is not our territory to decide what’s going on there.”

However, after a lengthy excursion into UN probes and investigations and resolutions, she concluded that the term apartheid could only be applied to Israel if it intended to keep the West Bank forever. If the government’s plan is to eventually arrive at a two-state solution, than the situation is not apartheid as defined by international law, she said.

Raday was followed by Oren Yiftachel from Ben Gurion University’s geography and environmental development department, who said that we should stop using the word occupation to describe what’s going on in the West Bank. “That word implies it’s temporary, but that is not what’s happening,” he said. He then juxtaposed a map of Israel/Palestine and apartheid-era South Africa. “Some things that are similar, some things are different,” he said.

Next up was Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director-general, who said that it was hard for someone like him to agree with the harsh words already spoken. In the end, though, he had to acknowledge that “in the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state — in the hope that the status quo is temporary — is an apartheid state.”

There is a real danger of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank becoming an integral part of the state, Alon, Israel’s ambassador in Pretoria from 1992 to 1994, said. “When that happens, when the West Bank and [Israel in the pre-1967 lines] become one, and the Palestinian residents of the West Bank will not have citizenship — we’re apartheid,” he said.

Similarities between the “original apartheid” as it was practiced in South Africa and the situation in Israel and the West Bank today “scream to the heavens,” added Liel. There can be little doubt that the suffering of Palestinians is no less intense than that of blacks during apartheid-era South Africa, he asserted.

‘From my independent knowledge of apartheid, I can say that it has become a generic and instrumentalized code word, so much so that it lost all true meaning’
As the evening wound down, it almost felt like poetic justice — or injustice, depending on where you stand — that the last speaker, the only one who fiercely disagreed with the application of the apartheid term to the current Israeli-Palestinian situation, was cut short because time had run out.

Another event had been scheduled for 8:00 P.M. and so professor emeritus Gideon Shimoni, the former head of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, who was born and brought up in Johannesburg, had to make his point in exactly seven minutes, as the first arrivals for the next event began walking into the hall. He spent the first two of those seven minutes lamenting that he would not now be able to present the full address he had prepared.

“From my independent knowledge of apartheid, I can say that it has become a generic and instrumentalized code word, so much so that it lost all true meaning,” said Shimoni. “It’s a code word that is not being used to analyze a sociopolitical phenomenon, but rather as a rhetorical weapon… to demonize and excoriate the State of Israel, a political entity that defines itself as Jewish and democratic.”

While everyone agreed on the necessity to fight the just fight (against discrimination and for a two-state solution), he said, employing the term apartheid in this context was “rather unfair and lacks intellectual honesty.”

All the terrible things that were described this evening, “from land theft to various draconic restrictions, as much they are worthy of condemnation — they are not apartheid,” he said.

Shimoni said he would have liked to elaborate further. Perhaps another time, he concluded, somewhat bitterly.

© Copyright JFJFP 2024