Israel’s apartheid debate: smash the mirror or fix reality?

A demonstration against annexation of the West Bank in Tel Aviv in 2020

Oren Yiftachel writes in Haaretz on 5 March 2021:

B’Tselem’s “apartheid document,” published in January, and the International Criminal Court’s decision soon after to investigate Israel’s potential war crimes in the occupied territories have stirred much debate on the nature of the Israeli regime. The subject was also the focus of the online Haaretz Conference on Democracy on Wednesday.

However, despite this important debate, a majority of Jewish-Israeli reactions preferred to smash the mirror rather than think about fixing the reality. With the election coming up, this reality should be confronted head-on, leading to the question “What next?” to which I turn below.

Notably, the apartheid argument has already been raised for some time in academic circles. The B’Tselem report marks the first time a local civil society organization has published a systematic analysis of the regime covering the entire area under Israel’s control – between the Jordan River and the sea. Of course, the only way to characterize an entity is to include all of its parts, although most organizations and leaders have refrained from doing so for decades. After five decades of colonial rule and permanent settlement, the excuse of “temporary occupation” has become meaningless.

The facts are beyond any doubt: Israel is the direct sovereign power in 90 percent of the territory between the Jordan River and the sea (the ’67 borders plus Area C). It also indirectly but quite tightly controls the remaining 10 percent in which 5 million Palestinians are forcefully concentrated in controlled enclaves. Applicable to all this area are laws, regulations or government practices that implement the principle of Jewish supremacy.

B’Tselem’s report demonstrates how, via a consistent process of violent and putatively legal colonization on both sides of the Green Line, a hierarchy of citizenships has crystallized, reminiscent of the former South African system of “whites” (full citizens), “coloureds” (partial citizens) and “blacks” (subjects without citizenship). Their counterparts in Israel/Palestine are Jews (full citizens throughout the territory), Palestinian Arabs in Israel (partial citizenship) and Palestinian subjects with no citizenship in the occupied territories.

Importantly though, in the international political and legal discourse, apartheid has come to mean a general type of regime and not necessarily an exact copy of South Africa. Indeed, there are also key differences between the two cases: In South Africa, the whites amounted to only 20 percent of the population, while here the Jews are about half. Unlike in South Africa, in Israel/Palestine there are two internationally recognized national movements, and two future states under international law.

B’Tselem’s argument can certainly be challenged and debated. Notably, many pertinent reactions have come from different places around the globe. Most importantly, it has won the support of many Palestinian civil society organizations, something not to be taken for granted in this time of deep separation and boycott.

Yet, in Jewish circles, the responses from the center-right have largely been Pavlovian, notably Education Minister Yoav Gallant’s hysterical reaction in banning B’Tselem representatives from schools. This was echoed by Netanyahu’s equally hysterical response accusing the court in The Hague of “pure antisemitism.”

The responses by right-wing columnists like Nave Dromi in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition, and leading columnists like Ari Shavit, Ben-Dror Yemini and Irit Linor in other newspapers have been dominated by a flood of curses and derogatory comments accusing B’Tselem of hatred, hypocrisy, antisemitism and anti-Zionism, while also blaming Palestinians for the Israeli colonial policies. These politicians and commentators would rather smash the mirror than be alarmed by the reflection.

On the center-left, the main reaction has been to look away from the mirror. In that vein, pieces in Haaretz by Zvi Bar’el, Israel Shrenzel and Shaul Arieli, as well as statements by Labor’s Merav Michaeli and Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz at the Democracy Conference have stuck to the worn-out formula of “democracy here, a temporary occupation there.” But what about the fact that in nine of the past 11 elections, it was the West Bank’s settlers’ votes that crowned the colonialist right to rule Israel? Apparently, “democracy” now includes the Jews in the occupied territories but not the disenfranchised Palestinians. In other words, this democracy isn’t a democracy.

An Israeli military road block in the West Bank in 2020

The selective right to vote is of course just one aspect of the increasingly deepening connection between Jewish Israel and the Palestinian territories in a process I’ve referred to in my research as “creeping apartheid” that gradually reinforces the principles of Jewish supremacy and “separate and unequal” in all areas of life between the Jordan and the sea. In such settings, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas only control the areas of life that Israel isn’t interested in controlling, and as such they too become (reluctant) servants of the apartheid order.

The most important question following the debate is “Where to now?” The B’Tselem report serves as a flashing warning sign. It aims to motivate all parties concerned with democracy and human rights to recognize what is reflected in the mirror so clearly, and to begin struggling harder than ever to halt the apartheid and decolonize Jewish-Palestinian relations.

Importantly, the end to apartheid does not necessarily lead to a one-state solution, as the international debate usually puts it. Such a solution would encounter profound difficulties given the recognized right of the Palestinians and Israelis to self-determination, a collective right no people is likely to ever give up.

There are several other possibilities, like the establishment of two separate independent states (which failed repeatedly for 80 years), or what I believe are more appropriate models of confederation and federation that would allow for sovereignty and self-determination for both peoples, while permitting freedom of movement, a united capital and an integrated economy in the shared homeland. The joint Israeli-Palestinian peace movement A Land for All has been promoting this path for several years, with modest but growing support.

But first, of course, the election is around the corner, so it’s vital to firmly oppose the broad spectrum of parties, from Kahol Lavan and Likud to the religious parties, that promote all shades of apartheid. Changing the momentum begins with supporting the (very few) parties that promote real democracy and equal collective and personal rights for all inhabitants of our land.

Beyond voting, much can be done in all walks of policy and daily life to break the racist separation between Jews and Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Hence, the big challenge posed by B’Tselem’s report is to resist the urge to smash the mirror or turn away from it. Instead it urges all concerned to bravely look at the unpleasant view reflected in the mirror and begin its transformation – the earlier the better.

Prof. Oren Yiftachel is a co-author of the B’Tselem report mentioned in this piece. He is a founding member of the A Land for All peace movement.

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