Ben White’s new book – Israeli Apartheid: a Beginner’s Guide (UPDATE)

July 15, 2009
Dan Judelson




Below is the Introductory chapter from Ben White’s book, courtesy of Pluto Press

Introducing Israeli Apartheid

Supporters of Israel present Zionism as an ideology of liberation of the Jewish people, but for Palestinians, Zionism, as it has been practiced and as they have experienced it, has been precisely apartheid.1 Approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the first time can be a confusing experience. There seem to be such widely varying points of view, contradictory versions of history, and utterly opposing explanations for the root of the problem. Why is this? One of the main reasons for this difficulty is the fact there are disagreements over Israel’s origins.
In this book, the truth of Israel’s past and present is laid bare; the ethnic cleansing, land grabs, discriminatory legislation and military occupation. This reality is very different from the typical tale of a small, brave nation, forced from the very beginning to fight for survival against implacable, bloodthirsty enemies; a country that has made mistakes but has always done its best to achieve noble aims with pure means.
What can explain such a profound difference? Pro-Israeli propaganda in the West has had a huge impact, but there is a more fundamental reason. ‘Security’ has been the justification for all manner of Israeli policies, from the population expulsions in 1948, to the Separation Wall over 60 years later. Defence, so it goes, is why Israel is forced to take certain measures, however unpleasant they may be.
Indeed, Israel argues, it alone is a country that fights for its very survival. Even putting aside Israel’s vast military strength, why would Israel’s existence as a Jewish state be so objectionable to Palestinians? Unlike today’s slick apologists, the early Zionists were refreshingly honest about the reality of their mission, as we will see more of in Part I.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky was one of the foremost Zionist leaders and theoreticians, a man who has more streets in Israel named in his honour than any other historical figure. In perhaps his most famous essay written in 1923, Jabotinsky was clear about one thing: ‘Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population’. Why? Simply put, history shows that ‘every indigenous people will resist alien settlers’.
This book has been written in order to describe clearly and simply what Zionism has meant for the Palestinians, how Israeli apartheid has been implemented and maintained, and suggestions for how it can be resisted. In this task, I am indebted to the many academics, writers and journalists who have researched, documented and witnessed the unfolding of Israeli apartheid in Palestine.
Part I begins with a concise history of the development of Zionist settlement and theory, particularly with how it related to the Palestinians. There is then a summary of the key historical events of the Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948, when the aim of a Jewish state in Palestine was realised.
Part II will clearly define the main areas of Israeli apartheid and the contradictions of a so-called ‘Jewish democratic’ state. Dispersed through Parts I and II will be small ‘stand alone’ boxes with personal stories of how individual Palestinians are affected by a given aspect of Israeli apartheid.
Part III is the section in which ways to resist Israeli apartheid are discussed, with details of existing initiatives that should hopefully encourage you the reader to think of your own ideas. Finally, the book concludes with a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section in which doubts or criticisms of the book’s main thrust will be asked and answered. But first, we are going to take a look at the definition of apartheid in international law, and the similarities and differences between South African apartheid and Israel.


For the purpose of the present Convention, the term ‘the crime of apartheid’, which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa, shall apply to the following inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them…5 [emphasis added]
Article II, International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, UN General Assembly Resolution 3068, 30 November 1973

While South Africa is most associated with apartheid (and is the context from which the term originates), the crime of apartheid actually has a far broader definition. This is important in the case of Israel, since even putting aside the similarities and differences to the South Africa case specifically, we have some kind of measure by which to assess Israel’s policies past and present towards the Palestinians.
In 1973, the UN’s General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which meant agreeing on a detailed description of what exactly ‘the crime of apartheid’ looked like. From this list of ‘inhuman acts’, there are some particularly worth highlighting:

• Denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person … by the infliction upon the members of a racial group or groups of serious bodily or mental harm, by the infringement of their freedom or dignity, or by subjecting them to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
• 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 … [including] the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence …
• Any 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 … the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group …

As will be described in Parts I and II of this book, Israel has been, and continues to be, guilty of these crimes, which are all the more serious for having been ‘committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons’.
More recently, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted in 1998 at an international conference. Israel was actually one of seven countries (out of 148) to vote against the statute. The ICC Statute includes the ‘crime of apartheid’ in a list of ‘crimes against humanity’, going on to describe apartheid as:

inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime …
Therefore, even before a consideration of the similarities and differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa, there is a clear set of criteria for what constitutes the crime of apartheid under international law with which we can assess Israel’s policies since 1948.


If Palestinians were black, Israel would now be a pariah state subject to economic sanctions led by the United States.
Observer, October 2000

White settlers in South Africa, like Zionist pioneers, colonised a land already inhabited. As in South Africa, the settlers in Palestine expelled the indigenous population, some two-thirds of the Palestinians in the land that became Israel in 1948, took possession of their properties and legally segregated those who remained.

It seems to me that the Israelis would like the Palestinians to disappear. There was never anything like that in our case. The whites did not want the blacks to disappear.
Mondli Makhanya, editor-in-chief of the South African Sunday Times, July 2008

Israel was compared to South African apartheid long before Jimmy Carter wrote his bestseller ‘Peace not Apartheid’. While the legal infrastructure that enforced apartheid South Africa differs substantially from the relevant Israeli legislation, there are also strong similarities. The common element of both legal systems is the intention to consolidate and enforce dispossession, securing the best land control over natural resources for one group at the expense of another.
Architect and academic Lindsay Bremner has observed that while in the popular imagination apartheid in South Africa meant walls, fences and barbed wire separating blacks and whites, in fact:

it was the countless instruments of control and humiliation (racially discriminatory laws, administration boards, commissions of inquiry, town planning schemes, health regulations, pass books, spot fines, location permits, police raids, removal vans, bulldozers) … that delineated South African society during the apartheid years and produced its characteristic landscapes.

As will be seen in Part II, this kind of description is all too familiar for Palestinians inside Israel, and the OPT, for whom – like black South Africans – ‘daily acts and rituals’ become ‘acts of segregation and humiliation’.
In a bitter irony, important parts of the so-called ‘peace process’ of the 1990s, which saw limited Palestinian ‘self rule’ in a small percentage of the OPT, have actually strengthened the comparison with apartheid South Africa. In 1959, South Africa passed a law designed to promote ‘self-government’ amongst blacks in sealed-off ‘reservations’. Reading this description by the late Israeli journalist Tanya Reinhart, the similarities with the situation in the OPT since the 1990s are striking:

The power in each of these entities was bestowed to local flunkies, and a few Bantustans even had elections, Parliaments, and quasigovernmental institutions … The Bantustans were allowed some symbols of sovereignty: a flag, postage stamps, passports and strong police force.

In 1984, Desmond Tutu noted that the Bantustans, in territory ‘arbitrarily carved up for them by the all mighty White Government’ deprived of ‘territorial integrity or any hope of economic viability’ were basically intended to ‘give a semblance of morality to something that had been condemned as evil’. ‘Fragmented and discontinuous territories, located in unproductive and marginal parts of the country’ with ‘no control’ over natural resources or access to ‘territorial waters’ – as we shall see, this is a frighteningly spot-on description of the OPT today.
However, to describe Israel as an apartheid state ‘does not mean equating ‘Israel with South Africa’. Indeed, any comparison should highlight both ‘corresponding developments’ as well as ‘obviously different circumstances’. One particularly striking difference is the fact that the apartheid regime in South Africa meant the rule of a white minority over a sizeable black majority; in 1913, when ‘the first segregation laws were passed’, the indigenous blacks made up ‘more than 75% of the total labour force’.
The other main difference is that Israel has not practised socalled ‘petty’ apartheid – in other words, there are no public toilets marked ‘Jews’ and ‘Non-Jews’. Palestinian citizens of Israel have full voting rights and there are a small number of elected Palestinians in the Israeli legislature (the Knesset). This is because had the ‘discrimination against Palestinians been written into Israeli law as specifically as discrimination against Blacks’ was written into South African law, then ‘outside support would surely be jeopardized’.
There is one key difference between Israel and apartheid South Africa that Zionists definitely do not trumpet. While in apartheid South Africa, the settlers ‘exploited’ the ‘labour power’ of the dispossessed natives, in the case of Israel, ‘the native population was to be eliminated; exterminated or expelled rather than exploited’. It could be said that Zionism has been worse for the indigenous population than apartheid was in South Africa – Israel needs the land, but without the people.
In a conversation between Israeli historian Benny Morris and Palestinian American academic Joseph Massad, the latter compared Israel to South Africa by way of its ‘supremacist rights’. Morris said this was ‘ridiculous’, responding that throughout Zionism’s history, Zionists ‘would have much preferred Palestine to be empty of Arabs with therefore no need for Jews to be supreme over anybody. They simply wanted a Jewish state.’
Morris’s objection to the term ‘supremacist’ is revealing, as it fl ags up the problem that has haunted Zionism until today. South African apartheid had a critical internal contradiction: while aiming ‘at setting racial groups apart’, it also ‘acknowledged their dependency’. Zionism, on the other hand, has tried ‘disappearing’ the Palestinians from Palestine in theory and in practice, yet they are still there.

Over the years there was a good deal of warmth between the respective leaders of the South African apartheid regime and Israel. South Africa’s Daniel Malan was the first prime minister to visit Jerusalem in 1953, but long before Israeli statehood was proclaimed, a personal friendship had thrived between Chaim Weizmann, who became Israel’s first president, and Jan Smuts, South African prime minister and senior military leader for the British. Weizmann often turned to Smuts in times of crisis – and ‘both men took for granted the moral legitimacy of each other’s respective position’.
Israel eventually became a prominent supporter of the apartheid regime in South Africa, leading to a 1984 UN General Assembly Resolution specifically condemning ‘the increasing collaboration by Israel with the racist regime of South Africa’. While many countries supported apartheid, what is interesting in the case of Israel is the extent of the shared empathy. In the early 1960s, for example, Hendrik Verwoerd, the South African prime minister, shared his own view that ‘the Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.’
In 1976, then South African Prime Minister John Vorster – a man who had been a Nazi sympathiser in World War II – was afforded a state banquet during a visit to Israel. At the official welcome, Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin made a toast to ‘the ideals shared by Israel and South Africa: the hopes for justice and peaceful coexistence.’ The following year, the ‘Official Yearbook of the Republic of South Africa’ noted that ‘Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples.’


Increasingly, Israelis, Palestinians, South Africans and international observers are pointing out the parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel. Several prominent South Africans have expressed their solidarity with the Palestinians, denouncing what they see as a similar (or worse) structure of oppression to the apartheid regime many of them fought against.
In 2002, veteran anti-apartheid figure and human rights campaigner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu made headlines with his article ‘Apartheid in the Holy Land’. Describing himself as ‘deeply distressed’ after a trip to Palestine/Israel that had reminded him ‘so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa’, the Archbishop affirmed that ‘Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people’.
In 2007, the UN Human Rights Rapporteur John Dugard, South African legal professor and apartheid expert, said that ‘Israel’s laws and practices in the OPT certainly resemble aspects of apartheid’, echoing other South African trade union leaders, politicians, church groups and academics. Western media correspondents have also made the comparison.
Even Israeli politicians and commentators are now talking about apartheid, or more specifically, the risk of Israel facing a similar civil rights struggle that eventually prevailed in South Africa. Indeed, albeit from quite a different perspective on the matter, Israel’s foreign ministry predicted in 2004 that if the ‘confl ict with the Palestinians is not resolved’, Israel ‘could turn into a pariah state, on a par with South Africa during the apartheid years’.
It is important to realise, however, that to compare the situation in Palestine/Israel to apartheid South Africa is not to try and force a ‘one size fits all’ political analysis where there are clear differences, as well as similarities. Rather, any such comparison is useful in so far as it helps sheds light – in Israel’s case – on a political system that is based on structural racism, separation and dominance.
Moreover, as the rest of this book explains, even leaving aside the specific comparison with South Africa, Israel’s past and present policies towards the indigenous Palestinians fully meet the aforementioned definition of apartheid laid out in international law – and urgently need to be treated as such by the international community.

Jonathan Hoffman’s review on the Z-word blog, published by the American Jewish Committee

Ben White’s rebuttal on his blog

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