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The Problem With Talking About Israeli Apartheid

We should be grateful that the title “apartheid,” to denote the Israeli regime between the river and the sea, is becoming more and more common and legitimate...A dynamic, active and dangerous dimension of it is Jewish settler colonialism.

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Israeli settlers in the unauthorized Evytar outpost in the West Bank, this month. In the 1967 occupied territories, the process of dispossessing and settling is underway., Credit: Tomer Appelbaum // Haaretz

We should be grateful that the title “apartheid,” to denote the Israeli regime between the river and the sea, is becoming more and more common and legitimate, even fashionable. But like every fashion, there is a problem here too. It is not with the definition itself, but with what is omitted from it.

The problem is that in all the heat of the talk about apartheid, a dynamic, active and dangerous dimension of it – the Jewish settler colonialism – has become dulled and blunted. According to the ideology and policies of Jewish settler colonialism, the Palestinians are superfluous. In short, it is possible, worthwhile and desirable to live without the Palestinians in this country between the river and the sea. Their existence here is conditional, dependent on our wishes and our goodwill – a matter of time.

The ideology of “superfluousness” is a poison that spreads especially when the process of settler colonialism is at its height. And that is currently the situation in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem.) The illusion that Israel will stop the settlement enterprise was shattered even before the ink dried on the Oslo Accords.

The view of the superfluousness of the Other is at the basis of military orders and of the activities of the Civil Administration and the Jerusalem Municipality – such as preventing construction, demolishing homes and expelling Palestinian residents to overcrowded neighborhoods and enclaves. It explains the violence of settlers and the ease with which our soldiers and police officers kill Palestinians, as well as the context in which Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich relates to Palestinian Knesset members as “citizens, for now.”

Settler colonialism is a continuous process of grabbing land, distorting historical borders, reshaping them and then expelling indigenous peoples. The apartheid as we knew it in South Africa was the later, advanced stage of the settler colonialism spearheaded by Holland, Britain and Portugal, and after that of citizens of other European nations.

In fact, inherent in the term “separation” is the fact that different groups of people live within one framework – under the control of one main center of power. The “separation” the Labor Party and its offspring (Kahol Lavan and its ilk) so love to brandish – with their characteristic lack of awareness of its incriminating meaning in Afrikaans (apartheid) – does not constitute recognition of the right of self-determination for Palestinians, but rather the acceleration of the creation of Palestinian enclaves and limited self-government within the space that Israel controls

Settler colonialism is a continuous process of grabbing land, distorting historical borders, reshaping them and then expelling indigenous peoples. The apartheid as we knew it in South Africa was the later, advanced stage of the settler colonialism spearheaded by Holland, Britain and Portugal, and after that of citizens of other European nations.

In fact, inherent in the term “separation” is the fact that different groups of people live within one framework – under the control of one main center of power. The “separation” the Labor Party and its offspring (Kahol Lavan and its ilk) so love to brandish – with their characteristic lack of awareness of its incriminating meaning in Afrikaans (apartheid) – does not constitute recognition of the right of self-determination for Palestinians, but rather the acceleration of the creation of Palestinian enclaves and limited self-government within the space that Israel controls.


Demonstrators protesting against settlement activity in Sheikh Jarrah in 2010. The sign on the left says: "Apartheid is here." 
Credit: Ronen Zvulun  //  Haaretz

Institutionalized apartheid solidifies the discrimination between the victorious settlers and the defeated colonized people – by means of legislation, clear geographical divisions and the delineation of final borders – while maintaining a certain stability in relations between the superior and the inferior. Nevertheless, the dispossession of indigenous residents from their lands never ceased completely, either in South Africa or in other white supremacy regimes established in lands and continents that the Europeans conquered and settled in recent centuries, among them Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, the United States, etc.

In apartheid, the made-inferior natives and victorious superior settlers live together under one roof. For the sake of sustainability, the regime needs the surviving natives to remain alive. They are exploited as much as possible, their lives are cheap, the finger on the trigger that kills them is light. But they are essential. They are counted. However, in the earlier stage, that of settler colonization – which aims to take over all the land – the original inhabitants, who are forced into a state of inferiority, become redundant. It is possible and worthwhile, and even desirable, to live without them (and to compensate for their absence by bringing in slaves and other cheap labor from other countries).

This ideology of the superfluousness of an entire people – or of large groups of inferior people – consumes and shatters and supersedes any value of human equality that may exist in the culture of the conquering people. The stronger the dimension of land-devouring colonialism becomes, the more the inferiors are considered superfluous in the eyes of the superiors. The fresher and more vibrant the colonialist component is, the more the superior people – in our case the Jewish people, woe to the fingers that must write this – will support the disappearance of the others. That is why the transfer-ist right wing is so strong in Israel’s settlements.

The existence of Israeli-Jewish apartheid was put forth in two texts published this year by B’Tselem human rights organization and Human Rights Watch. These groups, however, were not the first to call the monster by its name. Before them were the Palestinians themselves, of course – through BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) activities, social media, or NGO reports. Regrettably, and as expected, only when B’Tselem published its position did a broad international discussion begin on the subject. Because this is one of the characteristics of the racist, ethnic and class stratification in the entire world: The definitions and descriptions of the reality in which the underlings and inferiors exist (women, minorities, migrants, workers, etc.) must get the hegemonic and academic stamp of approval to be accepted as correct.

These two reports do relate to the engineering of the geographic space and the hostile Jewish takeover of Palestinian lands. But at a time when the definition of the Israeli regime as apartheid is becoming rooted in international discourse, the element of the “superfluousness” of Palestinians becomes blurred. Blurred too is the difference between the types of apartheid that live under one roof: Within Israel’s 1948 borders, the apartheid is riper and more consolidated. The Palestinians are inferior, but are also citizens who are counted in the statistics. In the 1967 occupied territories, the process of dispossessing and settling is still underway, in full strength. Palestinian natives there are much more exposed to the danger of quiet and mass expulsion embodied in the ideology of “superfluousness,” which is spread by the settlers and settlement movements.

[Amira Hass is the only Jewish Israeli journalist to have lived among the Palestinians in Gaza and Ramallah since 1993. She thinks it is as necessary as “covering Britain from London, and France from Paris.” Her reports for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, which she says "cannot be objective, just as any reporting about wrong-doing cannot be objective," have won her enemies in all camps. 

Forced by Hamas to leave Gaza earlier than planned, in 2008, (though permitted to return two months later) she was detained in Israel twice (in 2008 and 2009) for entering Gaza without a permit and staying in an "enemy entity.”In 2013, the Yesha Council (of settlers in “Judea, Samaria and Gaza”) accused her of inciting violence because she had written that Palestinians had the right to resist and had grounds for throwing stones. 

She was awarded the Reporters Without Borders/FNAC Prize in 2009 for her independent and outspoken journalism and, in particular, the quality of her reporting for Ha’aretz during and immediately after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead offensive against the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009. Accepting the award, she said: “Being an independent journalist is not that hard in Israel but for this independence to be real and effective, two conditions are needed. A newspaper ready to publish the articles and readers. I was lucky to have a newspaper, Ha’aretz, ready to publish, and the support of my editors, especially the news editor. But Israeli readers find it hard to accept a different version of events from what the authorities offer.”]